Urban Heat Islands Face Rising Temperatures This Summer and Beyond

The average temperature for summers in “urban heat islands” will continue to rise due to greenhouse emissions and La Niña patterns.

Landscape of Las Vegas

The summer of 2022 is set to be the fifth-hottest summer on record with the western and southwestern United States experiencing up to 10 degrees Fahrenheit increases since 1970. With more people suffering from heat fatigue, heat-related heart disease and allergies than ever before, the ongoing climate warming will affect more than just the air conditioning bill.

Urban heat islands — areas primarily composed of roads and infrastructure that absorb heat — trap in heat up to seven degrees Fahrenheit hotter than in outlying areas, according to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. As a result, these urban heat islands can also lead to air pollution and heat illness

Summers in the United States have been steadily heating up with 81% of studied locations observing at least seven days above normal temperatures, according to the non-profit research group Climate Central.

Heavily affected locations include Reno, Nevada, Las Vegas, Nevada, and Boise, Idaho.

Since 1978, more than 11,000 Americans have died from heat-related illnesses, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. However, scientists predict “extreme heat contributes to far more deaths than the official death certificates might suggest.”

Different groups are affected by extreme heat more severely, given the lack of tree cover in urban communities in which many low-income neighborhoods and people of color reside.

Three elderly women were found deceased last month in a senior facility in Chicago, Illinois, after temperatures reached 102 degrees Fahrenheit due to a lack of air conditioning. Vulnerable groups like the elderly may not have caretakers or may not be able to pay air conditioning bills on their own.

In a study highlighting 1,056 counties containing about 300 million Americans, “significant racial urban heat disparities” remained in 71% of those counties after income adjustment. On the West Coast in Tucson, Arizona, Latino neighborhoods are 4 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than the city’s average due to a disproportionate volume of tree cover.

In addition, one day of extreme heat was linked to a 0.27% increase in heart disease deaths among Black people. A significant increase was also found in men, according to a news release from the American College of Cardiology.

The urban heat island effect is difficult to eliminate due to high population density in cities and urbanized areas, but local efforts can be taken to mitigate it.

Voluntary efforts like urban forestry programs can close the uneven gap between wealthy and poor neighborhoods. For example, the City of Las Vegas Tree Initiative was announced by Mayor Carolyn G. Goodman in April to combat the urban heat island effect in the city. The city aims to plant 60,000 trees by 2050.

However, these canopies are faced with water shortages and temperature increases, and officials have to study which heat-tolerant tree species can survive in areas like Las Vegas, Phoenix and Chicago.

Green roofs can provide cooling effects, collect rainwater and absorb pollutants, bettering air quality. An initiative in the District of Columbia called the RiverSmart Rooftops Green Roof Rebate Program was started in 2006 to “promote the voluntary installation of green roofs” and offers a rebate of $15 per square foot of roof. As a result, D.C. led the country in green roof coverage with more than 3 million square feet of registered green roofs as of 2018.

Experts warn residents, especially infants, elderly and pregnant women, to stay hydrated, use fans and take advantage of local assistance like free air conditioning units, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Increasing temperatures also result in extreme weather storms and sea level elevations that harm marine life and humans globally, said Lauren Gaches, the Director of Public Affairs for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries.

“An unprecedented marine heat wave dominated the northeastern Pacific from 2013 to 2017 and upended ecosystems across a huge swath of the Pacific Ocean, causing fishery collapses and fishery disaster declarations up and down the coast,” said Gaches in an email.

With climate change disturbing marine life’s ability to adapt to warm sea temperatures, places that depend on mariculture for food will be at risk.

Gaches said climate change may lead to frequent marine heat waves in the future. 

“Climate change is causing significant impacts to the Earth’s oceans, marine life, and ecosystems, as well as the many communities and economies that depend on them,” said Gaches.

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Melina Nguyen


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