Weather extremes threaten everything from farms to football in Ga.

While attention on the impacts of the 2012 drought has largely focused -- understandably -- on the nation's agricultural belt and the rising cost of a bushel of corn, the state of Georgia has been gripped by a dry spell of historic proportions.

Life is already changing in Georgia because of the drought. But some experts wonder if it is changing enough.

State climatologist Bill Murphey says this past January through July was the seventeenth driest on record and the warmest ever recorded in the state. Precipitation is almost 7 inches below normal, and temperatures have been nearly 3 degrees Fahrenheit above the historic mean.

Several areas of the state received heavy rains this past week and, according to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor report, the portion of the state under exceptional drought conditions fell from 23 percent to 17 percent.

Still, nearly 70 percent of the state is abnormally dry.

"This drought has been going on almost for two years for us," said Murphey. Like this year, last year's drought in Georgia was overshadowed by attention given to that of Texas and Oklahoma, where ranchers sold off a record number of cows and towns had to truck in water.

The cold Pacific Ocean temperatures associated with La Niña kept Georgia hot and dry throughout 2011. Then came the early heat wave of March 2012, followed by the record high temperatures of June and July, which, according to Murphey, dramatically increased evaporation rates, depleting already dry soil of moisture.


"We've had 22, 23 months of drought here, but there could be light at the end of the tunnel," said Murphey, citing the recent rainfall and a revised National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecast suggesting a slightly more active storm season in the Gulf of Mexico. Emerging El Niño conditions in the Pacific could also help bring relief to Georgia's parched counties.

"We still have real bad stream flows and groundwater conditions across the state," said Murphey. "We could still use some tropical convection, some rains, to soak in the ground because we still have some recharging to do."

Those poor conditions have led the Georgia Environmental Protection Division to no longer accept applications for well permits in southwest Georgia. In 2008 and 2011, the state Legislature sought to correct a 200-year-old surveying area and move the state border northward 1 mile, enabling the state to tap the Tennessee River. Alabama and Tennessee would not go along with the move.

Soaring cost of air-conditioned chickens

"The agricultural sector -- and here, that's cotton, peanuts, soybeans -- they've been hit real hard," says Neill Herring of the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club, "and that's all in southwest Georgia, where they're dependent on groundwater circulation."

By chance, the state's poultry farms lie on either side of the band of drought-affected counties running from the southwest corner of the state to the northeast. While they have avoided a direct hit from the drought, chicken farmers have seen the impact of the extreme summer weather creep in through higher grain prices.

Michael Lacy, head of the University of Georgia's Poultry Science Department, said feed costs account for about 70 percent of a farmer's expenses. "The cost of grain is unprecedented," Lacy said. "It's the perfect storm, with 40 percent of corn going to produce ethanol in combination with a drought and the spike in corn prices."

According to UGA's Poultry Science Department, the state has been the leader in broiler production for a quarter-century, accounting for 1.41 billion birds and 7.47 billion pounds produced in 2008. If it were a country, Georgia would be the sixth-largest in broiler production. The chicken population has doubled since 1978, and with it, production has tripled.

Lacy estimates that high corn prices, which topped $8 a bushel this month, mean that the state's poultry sector will spend an additional $40 million this year on grain.

On Thursday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture lowered its 2013 forecast for poultry production by 600 million pounds to 36.5 billion pounds, citing increased corn and soybean prices. USDA officials announced earlier this week that the department would purchase $50 million worth of chicken, which will go to supplying the nation's food banks, in order to help aid the industry.

Lacy says that evaporative cooling and high-tech ventilation systems have insulated broiler populations from the searing summer heat. Nearly 100 percent of the state's 6,000 poultry farms, he said, have been upgraded since the 1980s. If it is 100 degrees Fahrenheit outside, the chickens likely feel a cool 75-degree temperature inside, according to Lacy.

But that system of production is a cause for concern, say state environmentalists. Colleen Kiernan, the Sierra Club's Georgia Chapter director, said the state's agriculture sector is vital to its economy but uses forms of electricity that contribute to global warming and consume vast amounts of water.

"We need to diversify our energy sector and include more renewable sources," Kiernan said. The energy sector consumes more water than any other, she said, adding that the state has proposed constructing two new nuclear reactors that would consume more water than the entire metro Atlanta area. Coal-generated power accounts for 40 percent of the state's electricity, she said, with nuclear providing 25 percent.

The Sierra Club's Herring is concerned that nuclear plants along the Savannah River might face future shutdowns due to warm water temperatures. Nuclear plants are often sited by rivers or inland estuaries in order to have easy access to water that is needed to cool them. A Connecticut plant was forced to shut down one of its reactors last week because Long Island Sound temperatures were too high. The Tennessee Valley Authority's Brown Ferry facility in northern Alabama was forced to operate at partial capacity for 50 days in 2010 and several days last year due to high surface-water temperatures.

When it's hot, football practice takes a pass

While drought, whether in Georgia or a thousand miles away in the U.S. Corn Belt, is forcing changes in the state's farming traditions, other revered American traditions are changing, as well -- namely, high school football.

The sport's popularity in the the state's drought-plagued south rivals its popularity in west Texas, the setting for the cable TV show "Friday Night Lights." But as football season gets under way, even this year, it has not escaped the constraints of Georgia's hottest January through July.

In a recent study, Andrew Grundstein, a professor in UGA's Department of Geography, along with several other scientists, found that the number of heat-related deaths among high school football players had nearly tripled nationwide since 1994. They suggest that climate change in combination with obesity brought about greater risk of heat stroke and expect that risk to increase as global temperatures warm.

"When you look at heat stress on people -- air temperatures and exposure to sunlight -- it's the humidity that can make it harder for the body to cool off," said Grundstein. "So it's really the combination of a lot of different weather factors [that puts athletes at risk]."

The state with the highest number of fatalities was Georgia, with six. The Southeast's high August humidity in the morning, said Grundstein, makes it especially risky for players. In August, football players are just beginning their practice regimens and are often not at peak performance levels.

In response, the Georgia High School Association has implemented stringent regulations on athletic practices, aimed at reducing heat-related illness and death. The rules specify when football helmets and pads may be used during practice, how many practices a team may have on any given day and at what point practices must be canceled due to elevated heat index levels.

It is the type of response that has won praise among high school athletics enthusiasts.

"Georgia's fairly well prepared [for addressing climate change]," the Sierra Club's Herring said, "but it has some real potential gaps, especially in the energy sector."