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'Heat Risk' initiative to find areas most at risk for extreme heat

'Heat Risk' initiative to find areas most at risk for extreme heat
Posted at 8:42 PM, Jul 15, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-15 20:42:40-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- Richmond is known for its hot restaurants, hot real estate market, and -- well -- for just being hot.

Staff and students with the University of Richmond and other community volunteers are taking part in a statewide initiative to measure temperature differences in 10 Virginia cities, including Richmond, to find the areas where people are most at risk during times of extreme heat.

The initiative, called "Heat Watch", is being led by the Virginia Foundation for Independent Colleges and will also be conducted in Petersburg where Virginia State University is the lead agency. The other cities and counties where data is being collected are Abingdon, Arlington, Farmville, Harrisonburg, Lynchburg, Salem, Virginia Beach and Winchester.

University of Richmond Associate Professor of Geography and the Environment Todd Lookingbill was in charge of the efforts in Richmond and said the members of the VFIC are studying the "urban heat island" effect.

"The urban heat island effect was discovered back in the 1800s, actually, but it's simply the fact that cities are warmer than their surrounding environments," said Lookingbill. "We have these huge heat burdens that are coming on they're disproportionately distributed across our neighborhoods."

Lookingbill said the differences in temperature are caused by at least three things.

"One, the lack of trees in the city. So, those trees pull water up from the ground and respire it through their leaves and that cools the surrounding area. Two, the surfaces, the parking lots and pavements all around us in the cities are often dark colors and through something called albedo effect those dark colors absorb more energy and reflect less than lighter colored surfaces," explained Lookingbill. "And the third thing that causes the urban heat island effect is these surfaces are also impervious to water. So, when it rains all that water is captured on these surfaces and gets flushed right out of the city, down the drain."

Lookingbill said VFIC was targeting to hold the survey in mid-to-late July when temperatures would peak and collaborated with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to pick a day with a low probability of rain through the entire state and landed on July 15 about a week ago. In Richmond, the highs were in the 90s.

"For us, it's perfect," said Lookingbill. "This is the fourth day over 90 degrees and, so, the cumulative heat load that's built up over those days is severe. And the higher the temperature, the greater the disparity in temperature which is what we're looking for."

Lookingbill said teams would travel around 12 sections in the city taking temperature and air quality data at three points throughout the day. He said the latter data point was something unique to Richmond's study.

"We're going to be asking those areas that are at a temperature disadvantage, those areas that have unequal and historically unjust temperature loads, do they also suffer from the poorest air quality in the city," added Lookingbill.

He said Richmond's study was also unique because, unlike other cities, a 2017 heat map survey was conducted by the Science Museum of Virginia

"From the 2017 study, we saw as high as a 16-degree difference between areas, shaded areas along the James which was the coolest area, some of the coolest areas that we identified to, for example, Scott's Addition was a really hot area."

"What we learned from that study is that there were certain areas of the city that there were really important differences in temperature and one of those was in the southside. And so, what we saw in southside Richmond, predominantly black neighborhoods, that seemed to be hotter than their whiter, often more affluent counterparts," said Lookingbill.

He added there was a correlation between those hotter neighborhoods and the historic discriminatory housing practice known as redlining.

"Another consequence of this redlining that we can track to is these neighborhoods that are suffering the highest heat burdens are often times least able to remediate those effects."

Lookingbill said the teams would be retracing the 10 areas in the 2017 study to see if temperatures have changed in anyways but also adding two additional areas on the southside.

"One of the new routes that we put in on the south side is in districts six and eight, kind of along the Commerce Avenue area where there's the Fall Line Trail that's being proposed so we're trying to get a handle on how temperature is in that area. We know it's industrial, we know it's going to have a high heat burden," said Lookingbill.

He said the data collected by this study will be able to be used to help governments and other agencies mitigate the impacts or address the underlying issues of heat disparity. Recently, he said the data was used to help select sites for five new parks on the city's south side.

"There's a lot of specific location-centered decisions that can be made based on these data," said Lookingbill. "They're going to put this data to work to change health policy, to inform climate change mitigation, to think about land use policy."