Natick has seen a plethora of weird-looking cars this month. Apple Maps vehicles were spotted around town recently, but those weren’t the only automobiles with unusual protuberances. On Thursday, July 13, volunteers drove cars with heat sensors attached for a very different cause: they were collecting data for a heat map of Natick. This will help the town understand and act on disparities in the effects of extreme heat.
Extreme heat can lead to health problems, including asthma and the potentially fatal heat exhaustion and heat stroke. In fact, heat is the leading cause of weather-related death in the United States, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Unfortunately, this issue is only getting worse as the climate changes.
What’s more, the impacts of extreme heat are not felt equally. Concrete, asphalt, steel, and other building material absorb heat during the day and then re-emit it at night. As a result, cities and other places without much tree cover and green space are usually hotter than nearby suburban and rural areas. These hot spots in cities are known as urban heat islands, and they are just another way that many of the world’s problems fall disproportionately on certain groups. People that are more likely to live in these “environmental justice areas” include people of color, low-income folks, immigrants, and those who didn’t learn English as their first language. This dates back to discriminatory practices such as redlining, and a host of other societal issues. These heat islands also particularly affect the elderly, children, and those without ways to keep cool while inside or working outdoors. The groups that are disproportionately impacted by the heat are also disproportionately impacted by its health implications.
As such, when developing strategies for cutting the impacts of the heat and fighting climate change, it is incredibly important to focus on urban heat islands and the other environmental justice areas that feel the worst effects, said Suzanne Wright, the Assistant Director of the Christa McAuliffe Center at Framingham State University. To this end, when the McAuliffe Center found out about the heat mapping project, it applied to participate and to represent Natick, Framingham, Ashland, and Holliston (they make up four of 154 communities selected). There have been previous heat mapping campaigns in the area: in Metro Boston, the Mystic River Watershed, and Worcester.
This particular heat mapping project is led by the McAuliffe Center, in collaboration with the Metropolitan Area Planning Council and the four communities involved. As Wright said, “The primary goal of the project was to collect real-time data on heat in our region to better understand where the urban heat islands exist, what areas provide cooling, and to inform the local policy and programs that those sustainability departments would utilize to trace extreme heat.”
To do this, the leaders of the project first had to recruit and train volunteers. It was a fairly low time commitment and easy training process, but the difficulty was in availability, as the leaders did not know at first when the campaign day (the day to actually carry out the project) would be. Campaign day had to be above 85 degrees, clear, sunny or partially sunny, and—this is the hard part given the recent weather—without any threat of rain. Eventually, they settled on July 13, and got 41 volunteers to participate. About half of these volunteers were Natick residents.
Wright said that the highlight of the campaign day was meeting these volunteers, many of whom were strangers to the leaders of the project, and all of whom were enthusiastic about taking action. Some driver-and-navigator volunteer teams were parents or grandparents with their children, while others met on campaign day and bonded over their shared interests and values while driving around.
On campaign day, the volunteers had a one-hour shift in which they drove a predetermined route with a sensor on their car. Because they had to carefully follow the route, one volunteer drove while another navigated. As they traveled through various parts of town, the sensors collected air temperature and humidity data. The data is linked with location, so it will reveal which parts of the participating towns feel disproportionate effects of extreme heat.
The data has been passed to CAPA Strategies, which is analyzing the information and will present it in a report, hopefully by the end of the summer or early fall. The sustainability departments in the participating communities will use this report to enhance their understanding of the heat disparities felt by residents. This will inform policy and programs to decrease the temperature in the hottest areas and to fight climate change more broadly. In other words, it will “make [the] community more resilient to the effects of climate change,” said Wright.
Wright hopes the recently conducted campaign, and the data and policy that it will produce, will inspire other municipalities and volunteers to get involved. “The more that we share our data and the process, I think the more that we can reach people in other regions of Massachusetts or New England to encourage them to try to pursue this as well—or even just bring awareness to the issues of urban heat islands and extreme heat,” she said.
Wright hopes that, one day, all of Massachusetts will be heat mapped. She wants the entire state to join the effort to fight climate change by helping those who need it the most.
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