It's Gettin' Hot in Here: Extreme Heat and Urban Heat Islands

What do you think of when you hear the word island’? Maybe pris­tine beach­es, the smell of the salty sea breeze, ice cold bev­er­ages, azure blue skies? What­ev­er it may be, it prob­a­bly doesn’t con­jure up the image of heat islands, often affect­ing our most vul­ner­a­ble com­mu­ni­ties.

Sum­mer 2022 has again brought extreme heat waves where tem­per­a­ture records were bro­ken. Extreme heat refers to above aver­age high tem­per­a­tures over the course of mul­ti­ple days. This con­cern­ing phe­nom­e­na has only wors­ened because of the cur­rent cli­mate cri­sis rais­ing already dan­ger­ous­ly high tem­per­a­tures to haz­ardous lev­els for many peo­ple, but espe­cial­ly for low-income and POC (peo­ple of col­or) com­mu­ni­ties who tend to live in urban­ized areas that lack green­ery. Nat­ur­al land­scapes that con­tain green­ery and water bod­ies func­tion as cool­ing agents in the sur­round­ing land­scape through means of shade cov­er­age and water evap­o­ra­tion. An urban­ized envi­ron­ment, how­ev­er, is filled with infra­struc­ture and mate­ri­als that absorb far more heat and radi­ate it towards their sur­round­ing land­scape, sig­nif­i­cant­ly increas­ing the sur­face tem­per­a­ture by sev­er­al degrees. As a result, the term heat islands’ emerged to describe these iso­lat­ed urban envi­ron­ments where pro­longed heat waves com­pound with oth­er envi­ron­men­tal fac­tors, neg­a­tive­ly affect­ing these com­mu­ni­ties.

Heat islands cre­ate a mul­ti­tude of prob­lems includ­ing but not lim­it­ed to health prob­lems, increased ener­gy con­sump­tion and relat­ed costs, and var­i­ous eco­log­i­cal issues. Accord­ing to the Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency, mem­bers of the com­mu­ni­ties that live in heat islands tend to suf­fer from heat-relat­ed ill­ness­es like: heat strokes, res­pi­ra­to­ry issues, cramps, and — in severe cas­es — death. It isn’t a sim­ple solu­tion to seek refuge indoors and blast the A/C either. Many liv­ing in heat islands have low-income sta­tus and tend to reside in ener­gy inef­fi­cient build­ings that cost more to cool with air con­di­tion­ing units. Even if air con­di­tion­ing units and oth­er cool­ing sys­tems are used, the high tem­per­a­tures from the heat islands increase ener­gy con­sump­tion sig­nif­i­cant­ly. One study indi­cates that heat islands increase ener­gy con­sump­tion for cool­ing by any­where from 10 – 120%. With the increased ener­gy con­sump­tion in these heat islands, more green­house gas emis­sions are released into the atmos­phere which exac­er­bates the already wors­en­ing cli­mate cri­sis. Besides wors­en­ing cli­mate change con­di­tions, heat islands have been shown to also impact the weath­er by chang­ing air cir­cu­la­tion pat­terns caus­ing rain to devel­op in dif­fer­ent areas than nor­mal.

Many are work­ing on solu­tions to this grow­ing prob­lem. WE ACT for Envi­ron­men­tal Jus­tice recent­ly com­piled a num­ber of help­ful rec­om­men­da­tions rel­e­vant to state and local pol­i­cy­mak­ers in a report. In Jan­u­ary, New York’s Attor­ney Gen­er­al Leti­tia James filed com­ments to the Occu­pa­tion­al Safe­ty and Health Admin­is­tra­tion (OSHA) call­ing for work­place heat stan­dards to pro­tect dis­ad­van­taged work­ers from extreme heat con­di­tions. The Biden-Har­ris admin­is­tra­tion expand­ed on its ear­li­er inter­a­gency ini­tia­tives focused on heat inequities through new exec­u­tive actions focused on ener­gy costs and Fed­er­al Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency fund­ing. The many needs in this area are like­ly to demand atten­tion for some time to come.