How the Heat Wave’s Affecting Your Wallet, Your Food and Your Holiday Weekend

The science behind rising temperatures is up for debate, but what can’t be argued is that increasingly hot summers are having a big impact on our lives and our economy.

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In Denver, it was 105 degree Fahrenheit. In Atlanta, 106. Chattanooga? 107. These kind of temperatures, usually reserved for summer’s blistering climax in August, erupted all around the country during the first full week of the season. The cause of the rising temperatures may be up for debate, but what can’t be argued is that increasingly hot summers are having a big impact on our lives — and on our economy. Heat waves affect not only our energy costs but also the food we eat, the roads we drive on, and our healthcare expenses.

For instance, this year’s early heat wave comes at an inopportune moment for businesses that profit from the 4th of July. Drought-ridden communities around the country have cancelled fireworks shows and banned the use of personal fireworks until rain lessens the chance of wildfire. People have good reason to be on edge: Wildfires in Colorado over the weekend killed two, destroyed 350 homes, and forced 30,000 residents to evacuate.

But the effects of high heat aren’t always so quickly seen. Last year a crippling drought in Texas cost the state $5.2 billion in agricultural losses, according to researchers at Texas A&M. Pastures dried out and cattle died off in large numbers, leading to the lowest cattle count in 60 years at the start of 2012. Beef prices climbed accordingly, jumping 5.4% between May 2011 and May 2012 (overall food prices increased only 2.8%). Cotton crops were also ravaged, with more than 50% of the harvest being lost.

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This year corn is similarly threatened. Farmers have planted the most corn in 75 years this growing season, according to the USDA, but harvest estimates were recently reduced over concern that excessive heat would wipe out crops. Prices are now climbing. With three-quarters of the country currently in some form of drought, other crops, such as soybeans, could also be damaged.

“Even a shorter term heat wave can somewhat reduce crop production, but can also increase animal mortality,” said Jeff Lazo, director of the Societal Impacts Program at the National Center of Atmospheric Research.

Beyond hurting crops (and by extension, consumers’ wallets), heat can have less obvious economic consequences, too. Highways and railroads can sometimes buckle in extreme heat, causing transportation hazards for travelers. “Heat causes thermal expansion of materials like concrete and steel rails, and given that they are fixed in position the only way they can expand beyond certain tolerances is to buckle,” Lazo said. It’s already happened this summer in Grand Forks, North Dakota, where a piece of city highway split in two because of excessive heat. The Missouri Department of Transportation issued a warning for motorists to be on the alert for roads “blowing up.”

Extreme heat also puts a strain on the healthcare system. A study of a 2006 California heat wave found that hospitals in the state dealt with 16,000 extra emergency room visits and almost 1,200 extra hospitalizations over a two-week period because of heat-related illnesses.

Heat waves aren’t only making us sicker — they’re growing more lethal, too. More than 200 people died because of extreme heat in 2011, according to the National Weather Service. That’s a huge jump from 2010 (138 deaths) and the average of the last decade (119). Most of these deaths came from adults over the age of 60 in homes without air conditioning.

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With so many people relying on air conditioning to remain cool, power grids are already being strained this summer. Electric companies across the country have begun urging people to conserve electricity as residents break records for power consumption. Obviously using tons of AC is going to have a short-term impact on your power bill, but there can be larger effects too.

Maximilian Auffhammer, a professor of agricultural and resource economics at UC-Berkeley, explained that when residents strain the power grid during a hot summer, many power companies revert to using “peaking plants,” tapping into emergency reserves such as natural gas to serve their customers. This can be expensive, and though laws prohibit electricity rates from immediately jumping, power companies are likely to recoup any losses by increasing everyone’s flat rate when the time comes to review prices. Summer electricity costs have ballooned over the last decade, with Americans spending $52.7 billion on electricity last summer compared to $30.9 billion in 2001, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Almost one-fourth of Americans’ electricity consumption goes toward air conditioning in a given year.

“We always take a very short-term view on these things,” Auffhammer said. “It’s hot outside, the easiest thing to do is just turn on the AC. If we thought about it with a little more long term view, there’s ways to lessen the impact.” He suggests setting a smart thermostat to turn on ten minutes before you get home instead of leaving the AC blasting while you’re at work. The Department of Energy estimates that this can save consumers hundreds of dollars a year.

Better to learn how to manage your energy consumption now, Aufhammer says, because scorching summers are likely here to stay. Soon enough the heat waves might not even be waves. “What you’re currently thinking is a really hot day in LA, a lot of models are predicting that’s what most of your summer will look like by the end of the century,” he said.

For those mainly concerned with surviving the rest of this summer, here’s the forecast: Temperatures this week are expected to remain high, but fewer all-time records are likely to be set in the immediate future (81 were set in June). Still, there’s no telling how hot it might get later in the summer, when peak temperatures are usually achieved. “Given the patterns and how early it is in the year, it’s not shaping up to be a good year to deal with heat,” Lazo said.