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Meet New Yorkers mapping the city’s heat islands


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At 3 p.m. New York City is typically approaching its hottest time of the day. The city has been basking in the late afternoon sun for hours, the heat building up between the densely populated buildings and lingering on the concrete sidewalks. The buzz of window air conditioners hangs in the heavy air.

As temperatures climbed to their peak on a sunny Saturday afternoon last month, Martin Stute and Aboud Ezzeddine crisscrossed upper Manhattan from the air-conditioned comfort of Stute’s Kia Niro. Attached to the passenger side window, a small sensor recorded the outside temperature and humidity in real time as they roamed the city streets.

Stute and Ezzeddine, respectively professor of environmental science at Barnard College and master’s student in public health at City University of New York, ended their second shift of the day as volunteers with a special project to map the urban heat. A collaboration between the nonprofit South Bronx Unite and the Earth Institute at Columbia University, sponsored by NOAA, the project aims to identify which neighborhoods are hotter than others and why.

Stute and Ezzeddine had already walked the same route marked out at 6 a.m. as the sun rose over the city, and they would resume it at 7 p.m. time on different routes. The idea was to collect data in various neighborhoods at exactly the same time of day, so that temperatures could be easily compared.

The second team had a difficult start for Stute and Ezzeddine. The little instrument in the window was programmed to start collecting data automatically at exactly 3 p.m. At that point, a blinking green light on the sensor was supposed to stop blinking and stay steady, indicating that it was ready to go.

Several minutes past the hour, however, the light was still flashing. In slow motion in the shade at the corner of 101st Street and West End Avenue, Stute and Ezzeddine stared at the sensor out the window and debated what to do. It had worked very well during the first shift.

The setback didn’t last long, however. After a quick call to a project organizer who offered age-old advice – “Maybe try turning it off and back on?” – the little green light has finally stopped flashing. They were gone.

The collaboration between Columbia and South Bronx Unite is one of many heat mapping projects sponsored by NOAA this year. There are others taking place in San Francisco, San Diego, Atlanta, Kansas City, and a handful of other cities across the country, including a separate project in Brooklyn.

“There is a lot of complexity”

This is the fourth consecutive year that the agency has funded this type of project as part of its American program of urban heat island mapping campaigns. The sponsorship program is a collaboration with the National Integrated Heat Health Information Program and the analysis company CAPA Strategies, which specializes in climate data.

The program provides the sensors and helps project organizers plot their routes. Later, CAPA processes the data collected by the sensors and integrates it into satellite maps so that communities can visualize which areas are warmer than others. The maps can help project planners determine which aspects of the urban environment might be contributing to the increase in heat.

“Temperature variation is very complex,” said Christian Braneon, NASA remote sensing specialist, director of the Environmental Justice and Climate Just Cities network at Columbia University and one of the project’s organizers. “It really has to do with the urban form. “

Everything from the height and density of buildings in a neighborhood to the types of materials they are made of can influence local temperatures. Denser neighborhoods with lots of dark surfaces tend to be warmer. Vegetation helps cool the local climate, while neighborhoods with fewer trees or parks may be exposed to more heat.

Studies show that differences in urban heat from one neighborhood to another disproportionately affect certain demographics. Low-income people and people of color are more likely to live in warmer neighborhoods in US cities (Climate wire, December 10, 2020).

Studies also suggest that a long history of racist redlining – a practice in which lenders would deny mortgages and loans to areas with large minority populations – has contributed to disparities in urban design that make some neighborhoods hotter than many. others. While redlining was banned in 1968, its legacy continued decades later. Research suggests that neighborhoods formerly marked in red are always warmer than their unmarked red counterparts (Climate wire, January 21, 2020).

These are critical public health issues. Heat is the biggest weather-related killer in the United States. Hundreds of people die from heat-related illnesses across the country each year.

‘Every time someone hurts, we all hurt’

This summer has been particularly extreme. Experts estimate that hundreds of people died in the record-breaking Pacific Northwest heat wave last month alone. Scientists warn that these types of extreme heat events are becoming more frequent and intense as the climate warms.

Neighborhoods that are already warmer than their surroundings may be more vulnerable when heat waves strike. The lesser access to air conditioning in working-class neighborhoods makes the danger even greater. These problems are compounded by other challenges that members of these communities may face, including unequal access to health care.

A recent report from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene found that black New Yorkers experience disproportionately high death rates from heat stress, about twice the death rate of White New Yorkers. Mortality rates also tended to be higher in neighborhoods with a higher percentage of residents living below the poverty line.

Braneon and other project organizers hope the heat mapping project can help support interventions aimed at reducing these disparities, for example by advocating for more parks and green spaces in warmer neighborhoods.

“I actually like to think of this project as almost like the culmination of what we did,” said Melissa Barber, co-founder of South Bronx Unite.

The organization tackles a variety of environmental justice issues, such as advocating for more green space and less community exposure to air pollution. One of the organization’s first campaigns was a fight to prevent the FreshDirect grocery delivery service from relocating its diesel trucking operations to the South Bronx, in part because of concerns about its impact on air pollution. local.

Urban heat, Barber said, is an issue that cuts across all of the organization’s priorities.

Urban heat is exacerbated by the lack of green space, and a combination of high temperatures and air pollution can exacerbate the impacts on human health. She said she hopes the data from the project will help strengthen the organization’s case as it approaches elected officials on environmental justice issues in the South Bronx.

These issues are more urgent as climate change continues to push temperatures skyward, she noted.

“Most of us think that we can actually ignore the problem and that it isn’t affecting us, but it is,” she said. “Every time someone suffers, we are all hurt.”

Reprinted from E&E News with permission from POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2021. E&E News provides essential information for energy and environment professionals.

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