The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has announced that it is continuing the Urban Heat Island mapping campaign. The agency is mapping urban heat islands in 14 U.S. cities this summer. The initiative, which began in 2017, has seen NOAA and partners conduct heat island mapping campaigns in 69 communities so far.
According to the NOAA webpage, the communities chosen to be mapped this year are Chicago, Ill.; Salt Lake City, Utah; Dallas, Texas; Oklahoma City, Okla.; Asheville, N.C.; Framingham and Brockton, Mass.; Johnson County and Wyandotte County, Kan. (which includes the Kansas City suburbs); Wilmington, Del.; Toledo, Ohio; Little Rock, Ark.; Scranton and Wilkes-Barre, Pa.; Sedona, Ariz.; Iowa City and Cedar Rapids, Iowa; and Washington County, Ore., outside of Portland.
In addition, NOAA is working with local groups and the Pan-American Health Organization on an international heat island mapping campaign in Santiago, Chile. This will be the third NOAA-funded international campaign. Others were completed in Freetown, Sierra Leone and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, earlier this year.
The mapping campaign focuses on helping communities address the issues that cause extreme heat. For example, neighborhoods with fewer trees and more concrete can experience temperatures 20 degrees hotter than surrounding areas that have those two qualifiers. Gathering this environmental information helps to more accurately measure where it’s hottest, allowing strategies to be planned that can reduce the heat’s dangerous effects.
Nicole McNeill, marketing and communications manager for Asheville GreenWorks, said many health problems arise from high temperatures.
“Prolonged excessive heat exposure can cause heat strokes and heart attacks. Acute crises are created by heat, especially among people with chronic health issues, such as asthma,” she said.
Heat affects other natural processes as well.
“Lots of our pollinators, who are responsible for one in every three bites of food we eat – native bees, butterflies and moths – are extraordinarily heat sensitive. They won’t survive. They will just disappear.”
NOAA’s program is part of the Biden administration’s Justice40 Initiative, a program created to deal with decades of underinvestment in disadvantaged communities. The intent is to bring resources, including clean energy, to communities most impacted by climate change and other issues.
The America the Beautiful Initiative is part of NOAA and consists of grants that support projects to conserve and restore habitats for wildlife, improve community resilience and allow more access to nature, which also help heat islands – and the people who live in them – cool down.
NOAA selected Asheville as one area to study and then further committed via grant money to Asheville GreenWorks.
Debate notwithstanding, global warming is affecting every season, whether through temperature extremes or precipitation levels – or a lack thereof.
Is this something every household can do something about? McNeill said, “That’s a great question. I think the challenges facing the climate are human-made, so they can be human-solved. I think people can feel overwhelmed when talking about climate, but there are things they can do to keep it from worsening. Some of the issues to think about – and NOAA tracks this carefully – this summer was predicted to be one of the hottest on record.
Homes without air conditioning or fans usually don’t have the financial resources to buy things like that, or for that matter, run them,” adding to the human toll, she added.
But it isn’t just heat.
“Out-of-season storms, such as excessive rain or ice, are a big thing. Here in Asheville, our annual rainfall has now created neighborhoods vulnerable to flooding. Some of them always were, but we now see more instances of it not being a freak storm but something people are having to be proactive about. How do you do that? How do you protect bridges? You open the paper and think, ‘Wildfires? Again?’ They’re much more common now, and they shouldn’t be. So the communities are asking us how they can prepare.”
They might not seem like they could make much difference, but preventative measures like plantings, awnings and careful waterings at specific times are simple things anyone could do.
“All of those can do a lot of good. A well-placed tree can make a big difference,” said McNeill. “We are an organization that works to restore urban tree planting, and we encourage that whenever, wherever. Whether on private land or public, trees are very important for soil. They absorb water. And planting them around a house can make it cooler inside. We’re looking to really get folks thinking about the value of trees that are already in their neighborhoods, around their homes.”
Those trees are doing the most to promote climate regulation, she said. In more and more cities, people are getting involved in planting them.
McNeill said there are all kinds of resources for cooling heat islands available online, including energy.gov. This website has information, toolkits and more to help guide communities. Residents can even learn how to landscape if their homes are vulnerable to flooding water.
“Everyone’s circumstances are different, and it takes creative thinking – problem-solving – if this doesn’t work, let’s try that,” McNeill said. “On a community scale, any place you can be more energy efficient – that’s a benefit.”
A lot is being written now about the electrical grid, and depending on where a person is, that could be contributing to greenhouse gases, she continued.
She tells people, “Insulate your attics. You want to keep the expensive air you paid to cool in your house and not let it go to the attic or basement. Look where your light fixtures meet the ceiling and where plumbing comes through the walls. Are those areas insulated? Can your basement be insulated so your floors stay warm? Do you have energy-efficient appliances? The older they are, the less likely to be efficient. And simply placing houseplants around your home helps clean the air, keep it in better quality.”
For a town that might not be part of the NOAA mapping, McNeill said, residents could start by just looking at the challenges they are currently feeling or facing.
“Is the weather more extreme than it used to be? More heat? More flooding? Start a conversation with your parks and public works department. Ask them, is there more road damage? Get curious about what’s already happening. If you’re lucky and you have a university or county public health department, there are probably already people in place who can tell you what to change as the climate gets more unpredictable.”
Find out what the hoped-for outcome for residents, she recommended. Get the concerns people have about their homes and businesses. Then the community can decide how and where to proceed.
“Some people might look at food prices: There’s a climate connection right there as well. We are all members of the same Earth, and everything that’s happening to it will affect the environment. I would encourage residents to look around at their own community, at their neighborhood. It’s unfortunate that something like this has become political, but when it comes to putting food on your table, there’s nothing political at all. People want to – need to – feed their kids. And no one wants to breathe bad air or deal with flooding in their basement. We are excellent problem solvers or can be. You will see that in every community. And it’s important to see what’s at stake if things get worse.”
McNeill said she thinks every city is in a different position and has a different context, a different set of resources and different priorities when it comes to combatting heat islands and climate change.
“There have been some fantastic, creative responses when armed with this information. There are new cities studied every year. I believe the intention of the heat mapping program is to partner with cities and enable them to collect this data. Then it becomes a catalyst for the future. Like farmers, dealing with drought, growing seasons, and changes in soil and livestock: There’s always volatility in the hay market, so even what they’re feeding their animals can change. It’s a very interconnected system. And then there are desert communities or rainforests. The D.C. area is very close to sea level and low elevation is an interesting situation.” For more information, subscribe to the Heat Beat Newsletter, check out the National Integrated Heat Health Information System website or follow #UrbanHeatMaps2023 on social media.