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Why U.S. extreme weather is an economy, infrastructure problem, too

Experts say dangerous weather patterns extend well beyond health to the economy and infrastructure

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A firetruck drives along California Highway 96 as the McKinney Fire burns in Klamath National Forest, Calif.

A firetruck drives along California Highway 96 as the McKinney Fire burns in Klamath National Forest, Calif., Saturday, July 30, 2022.

Noah Berger, Associated Press

Pick a starting point and drive straight across America, east to west and back again, and there’s no telling what kind of weather you might encounter. It’s going to vary a lot.

Parts of California are burning, the winds from the McKinney fire kicking up its own weather system. Seattle is taking a breather from a record-breaking heat streak. Part of Kentucky is underwater from flash floods that have killed several dozen people. And West Virginia just endured a tornado.

Forbes has dubbed it the “summer of extreme weather.”

The tornado touched down Monday night in Dallas Pike, West Virginia. According to WTRF, several homes and barns were damaged or destroyed in both Ohio and Marshall County and as many as 500 residents were without power. Another tornado reportedly hit Beham, Pennsylvania, the TV station said.

Axios notes two “1-in-1,000-year” rainstorms, 400 miles apart in St. Louis and in Hazard, Kentucky. The Missouri rainfall was so swift it overran both rivers and creeks, “washing out roadways and forcing swift water rescues to be conducted.” In Kentucky, the rushing flood water was so strong “that it pulverized school buses, washed mobile homes away and destroyed roads and bridges,” Mike Allen reported.

At least two people died in the McKinney fire in northern California and thousands have had to evacuate, as CNN reported. The blaze erupted Friday afternoon in the Klamath National Forest near the Oregon border and as of Monday had burned through more than 55,000 acres.

Hot and cold

But heat and water are the major killers. According to meteorologist and Forbes contributor Jim Foerster, heat is the leading cause of weather-related deaths in the United States. And as the Deseret News reported Monday, “The National Severe Storms Laboratory in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says floods are the most common and widespread of all weather-related natural disasters. In the United States, more people die in floods each year than in tornadoes, hurricanes or because of lightning.”

The Associated Press reported that at least seven deaths in the Portland, Oregon, area were believed to be related to heat. Temperatures normally in the low 80s have been nearing, and at one point exceeded, the 100-degree mark, while few homes have air conditioning. Area authorities resorted to overnight cooling centers so people could escape the sweltering heat.

Part of keeping the economy running is keeping workers safe. As the Deseret News reported last year on extreme weather dangers, the very young and older adults are especially at risk, because their internal thermostats may not work properly.

But working or playing outdoors in extreme heat can pose risks for anyone.

According to the article, “Exertion and temperature can both generate heat. Hyperthermia can stop the heart, according to warnings from the National Institute on Aging. Signs can be vague or even contradictory: a headache, nausea, a little dizzy. One might have cramps in the stomach, arms and legs. Feet and ankles may balloon. Sweat may pour out — or stop entirely. Temperature can rise or stay normal while skin becomes cold and clammy. The pulse might race or slow.”

The key if someone doesn’t feel well and it’s hot? Cool down and see if you feel better. But don’t wait long. If it doesn’t resolve, “get medical attention fast, as if your life depends on it. It might, experts warn.”

Cold can be harder to spot. An internal body temperature below 95 degrees Fahrenheit is very dangerous, because it can trigger heart attack, kidney failure, liver damage and more. When it’s cold, the National Institute on Aging said older people should try to keep homes between 68-70 degrees. But that’s hard to do in extreme weather events that may impact power.

Economic disasters

Surviving extreme weather isn’t the only challenge and doesn’t mean folks are not harmed.

Per Forbes, Foerster notes that in addition to the human cost, extreme heat hurts a nation’s economy, “quantifiably reducing productivity and GDP. But more importantly: much of the world wasn’t built for a hotter climate.”

Foerster calls on business leaders to buckle up, because the challenges will be long term and include not just health and safety, but the impact on business and productivity.

Writing for Forbes, he notes infrastructure challenges related to extreme heat and the “disastrous impact on systems not designed to withstand extreme heat.” Among actual recent occurrences he cited, an airport runway melted in England and train schedules were reduced in the U.K. and Belgium over fear that the aging rail networks would fail as temperatures soared. Crops are being destroyed by heat, including Italy where wheat production dropped 15%, while the fruit and wheat crops in the Pacific Northwest are at risk, he wrote.

Reuters reported that in the Pacific Northwest, “the extreme weather is another blow to farmers who have struggled with labor shortages and higher transportation costs during the pandemic and may further fuel global food inflation.”

A southeastern Idaho farmer told Reuters he expects to be able to harvest about half his winter white wheat crop and that some of his safflower oil and canola crops have already withered.

Meanwhile, in the middle of the cherry harvest in late June, temperatures in The Dalles, Oregon, reached a record 118 degrees. Workers had to harvest in the middle of the night to keep safe.

The outlook

Climate.gov said the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center projects that the bulk of the country will have a warmer — and in some cases sizzling — August than normal. A small segment of the Southwest, in the Four Corners region, might expect cooler-than-normal temperatures, particularly near the Arizona-New Mexico border. The drought is likely to improve in that area, the agency said.

No one’s predicting that extreme weather conditions are going to leave any time soon, given the warming of the planet due to climate change.

Allen puts it this way: “When it rains, it rains harder. When it’s hot, it gets hotter — and stays that way longer than it used to.”