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How heat waves can scorch the U.S. economy

Dangerous western heat wave explained
Dangerous western heat wave explained 06:31

The triple-digit temperatures roasting the Pacific Northwest under a lingering heat dome are also starting to hurt the region's economy.

In Portland, Oregon, temperatures forced the city's streetcar system to shut down as power cables melted and the heat strained the power grid. Near Seattle, roads cracked along stretches of a major interstate and a public pool shut because air quality was dangerous. Some restaurants closed to protect kitchen staff in a region where fewer than half of homes have air conditioning. 

Avista, a utility that serves parts of Washington and Idaho, instituted rolling outages Tuesday as surging electricity demand because of the extreme temperatures strained power grids.

"We know that human-driven climate change is increasing global temperatures, and extreme heat waves disrupt a bunch of the conditions that we think are normal," said Costa Samaras, a Carnegie Mellon associate professor of civil environmental engineering who focuses on energy and climate change. 

Last year, some 22 extreme events — from cyclones and hurricanes to drought — cost the U.S. a combined $95 billion, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Since 1980, overall damage from some 285 weather and climate disasters cost at least $1 billion each, or a total of $1.9 trillion, according to NOAA.

"Taxpayers are on the hook for rebuilding all that," Samaras said. "So we all are paying additional taxes to fix infrastructure that gets degraded or destroyed because of extreme weather."

Here are other ways the record-breaking heat could take a toll on the Pacific Northwest.

Business stops

Extreme heat is especially hard on outdoor professions. Landscapers and groundskeepers, construction workers and highway workers are among those who spend the most time outside, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

"In the depths of summer, it's just going to be harder and harder to do a lot of outdoor work in very hot places," Samaras said. "And so things that we need, things that the economy does need to get done outside, will need to be adjusted to keep people safe." 

But people who work indoors in buildings that lack air conditioning — from teachers and factory workers to kitchen staff and electricians — are also vulnerable to extreme heat, said A. Patrick Behrer, a postdoctoral scholar at the Center of Food Security and the Environment at Stanford.

we unfortunately are unable to open up shop today due to the extreme heat 🥵 Temperatures are too high for our employees...

Posted by Cloud City Ice Cream on Saturday, June 26, 2021

"The most surprising industries are those where you tend to think of as working inside. But despite the fact that they're inside, they're still exposed to heat," Behrer said.

Productivity slows

Boeing, with two major manufacturing sites in the Seattle area, is operating normally "in most instances, with some adjustments for certain roles due to the heat," a spokesman told CBS MoneyWatch by email. The aircraft maker said it is monitoring the situation to "make adjustments as needed."

When temperatures soar, productivity appears to slow more in regions with fewer days above 95 degrees, like Boston or Seattle, than in places typically better prepared for prolonged heat, like Houston, a 2017 study by Behrer and UCLA economist Jisung Park found.

Predicting how well communities adapt as the planet gets hotter is difficult because it's hard to know what specific adjustments regions will eventually make to cope with a warming planet, Behrer told CBS MoneyWatch. 

"There will be ways in which we're able to adapt and ways in which we're not able to adapt, and it's hard to predict exactly how that's going to play out," he said.

Infrastructure breaks down

Portland suspended its light rail service on Monday because of the heat, while Seattle slowed the speed of its railcars to ease the strain on the system. Alaska Airlines said the heat was slowing operations from New Orleans to Seattle, where temperatures on the runway can be 20 degrees hotter than elsewhere. The airline said it set up cooling vans for employees.

"A lot of the infrastructure is designed to perform within a certain temperature range. Extreme heat can make some of that exceed that range, and that's one of the economic impacts of this," said Samaras.

Electric bills surge

In extreme heat, power consumption rises as people try to stay cool. In the normally temperate Pacific Northwest — and even in hotter states — that can strain aging power grids not build to withstand searing temperatures.

As more cooling centers open, electricity prices have shot up by more than 400% in parts of the Pacific Northwest, according to Bloomberg

Crops can wither

In central Washington, where temperatures are expected to reach around 117 degrees on Tuesday, orchard operators are trying to save the cherry crop by using sprinklers and sending workers out at night to harvest the fruit. 

Cherries are ripening now just as the unprecedented temperatures grip the region. Growers are moving 500,000 boxes a day, B.J. Thurlby, president of the Washington State Fruit Commission, told the Associated Press. Washington accounts for the bulk of the nation's cherry crop, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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