Extreme Heat in U.S. Cities Hits More Poor and Minority Communities

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Newswise — Communities with high Black, Hispanic, and Asian populations experience more urban heat than those in wealthier and more populated areas of the United States. The analysis of remotely-sensed surface temperature measurements of 1,056 U.S. county’s, which have ten-plus census districts, was published in the journal Earth’s Future. It was found that land surface temperatures in the poorest neighborhoods can be up to 7 degrees Fahrenheit higher than those in the richest areas during the summer months for 71 percent. The same holds true for minority communities in the country, even after controlling for income. Susanne Benz was the first author of the study and was a postdoctoral fellow at the School of Global Policy and Strategy’s Big Pixel Initiative. “Systematically, the high heat surface exposures of low-income communities with higher minority populations are due in part to more densely populated areas, less vegetation and, to a lesser degree, to higher levels of population density. “Benz co-authored this paper with Jennifer Burney, her postdoctoral supervisor and the Marshall Saunders Chancellor Endowed Chair for Global Climate Policy and Research at School of Global Policy and Strategy. Burney stated that, “Particularly during summer, warming in cities caused by alterations in the surface energy balance jeopardizes our health and productivity.” “The distribution of urban heat is uneven within cities. This means that not all communities are affected by the city’s extreme heat burden. “Extreme heat has been associated with a variety of human consequences, including premature births, lower test scores, decreased productivity, and increased risk for heatstroke among children and elderly. Benz and Burney were able, using satellite-data, to analyze the changes in surface temperature caused by urbanization at a neighborhood-by–neighborhood level. They were able to evaluate the heating differences within cities by using a pixel-based image analytics. These statistics were compared to data from the census districts to determine the environmental inequalities in urban climates. The researchers created an app powered by Google Earth Engine that community members can use to compare their neighborhood’s temperatures to the surrounding areas. 40 percent of the population experiences urban heat. In a separate study, Benz, Burney, and co-author Steven Davis from UC Irvine, used the same methodology to analyze urban heat. They also compared the temperatures in the surrounding areas to determine how they compare to the urban areas. A person who lives in an urban area is exposed to temperatures up to 3 degrees Celsius (or 6 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than their rural surroundings. This has major implications as more than half the world’s population now lives within urban areas. With global warming on the rise and the trend of rural-to urban migration expected to continue into the next century, extreme urban heat will affect more than 2 billion people. The Environmental Research Letters paper explores the potential for policies to reduce heat anomalies in urban areas. The team sought out global patterns to explain why some cities have a lower urban heat burden than others or maintain cooler temperatures than their rural counterparts. The two main drivers of urban heat creation or offset are vegetation and built-up areas. Desert cities such as Palm Springs experience urban cooling because of their light-colored streets and roofs. The authors suggest that urban heating can be mitigated by planting more trees and greenery and changing building materials to reflect less sunlight. This could result in a drop of 0.6 degrees Celsius or 1 degree Fahrenheit in summer temperatures for 59 percent. These two studies suggest that a new approach to city planning and policymaking is needed. Benz and Burney say that smart urban planning must not be considered a luxury item. Otherwise, the most vulnerable populations will suffer more heat-related suffering. “Access to livable urban temperatures must be a priority for the vibrancy of our cities.

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