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Climate change brings heat and storms, prompting changes at outdoor cultural events

An illustration of climate change's impacts in St. Louis, Missouri.
David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio
Scientists say St. Louis will bear the brunt of higher temperatures in future decades. Some cultural leaders are working out what that means for outdoor events.

St. Louis cultural organizations that stage performances and other programming outdoors are taking steps to protect visitors and staff from extreme weather.

Human-driven climate change leads to more heat, more humidity and stronger, more frequent storms. Scientists project that over the next three decades, St. Louis will experience a particularly high spike in days with extremely high temperatures.

“The weather is getting worse, and it is affecting operations,” said St. Louis Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director Tom Ridgely. “Whether it’s very wet or very hot or very polluted, we have seen those extreme conditions affect people’s decisions about whether to come out and see a show outdoors.”

The theater festival stages most of its events outside, including its annual mainstage production in Forest Park and a tour of public parks the company began last year and will reprise in August.

Sweltering temperatures during the park tour last year prompted the organization to implement its first heat policy: Performances do not begin if the temperature is above 95 degrees or the heat index is above 105 degrees. In June, festival leaders added a new standard. If the AQI — a measurement of air quality — indicates dangerous conditions, performances will be canceled or postponed until conditions improve.

At Busch Stadium, where fans may spend hours under the blazing sun, ushers are instructed to watch for signs of heat stroke and heat exhaustion and move affected patrons to shaded areas. These are typical safety strategies for summer events, but the Cardinals organization also has loosened ticketing policies to give guests affected by the heat a chance to switch to a more shady location in the stadium if possible. There are seven 125-gallon water tanks placed around the park for public use, and an extra medical crew is on duty during games.

Among the Missouri Botanical Garden’s 400 employees are about 70 horticulture workers who care for outdoor plants and flowers. Supervisors encourage them to shift their hours to work earlier in the morning and avoid being outside in afternoons, which are typically warmer. Workers also have spent more time this year making sure the vegetation is adequately watered.

“We’ve certainly had some hot days, and then coupled with the air quality, it can just be downright dangerous,” said Jeff Hillis, senior manager for safety at Missouri Botanical Garden.

A spokesperson for the Muny, which stages musicals seven days a week at its 10,000-seat outdoor theater in Forest Park, declined to comment on steps the organization has taken to protect workers and patrons from extreme heat and poor air quality.

St. Louis weather has been less extreme so far this July than in 2022, when there was record rainfall and six days reached temperatures above 100 degrees. St. Louis air quality is typically poor, according to the American Lung Association, with high levels of dangerous ozone recorded in recent years. At times in June and July, smoke from Canadian wildfires combined with high ozone levels to further deteriorate air quality and create haze that obscured the St. Louis skyline even from nearby locations.

Some organizations have seen fewer weather disruptions than others. The St. Louis Zoo has a task force dedicated to assessing organizational responses to climate change, but no major changes have been made.

“We’re all understanding that things are going to change in the future, but immediately I wouldn’t say there’s too many things that have changed in our operations. Just being more diligent and aware — and tracking weather frequently to see what’s happening,” said Michael Macek, the zoo’s director.

Quickly developing rainstorms are the most immediate weather-related threat to zoo programming, Macek added, and workers are spending more time tracking nearby storms.

Workers also closely monitor the conditions for animals that live outside and distribute ice when needed, though many zoo residents — including camels, giant tortoises and giraffes — are well-adapted to conditions that are unusually hot for St. Louis.

Spokespeople at St. Louis Zoo and Missouri Botanical Garden said their summer attendance numbers this year are strong.

St. Louis Shakespeare Festival has not yet canceled a performance because of excessive heat or poor air quality. But its new rules make weather delays and cancellations “less of a judgment call” and take the onus from performers who may be reluctant to demand a halt to the show, Ridgely said.

Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.