BUFFALO, N.Y. — A scorching heat wave in the Phoenix area killed more than 100 people in the summer of 2016 as temperatures soared to near 120 degrees.
Over three days in November 2014, a massive snowstorm — dubbed “Snowvember” — dumped more than 7 feet of snow across parts of Western New York, causing 13 deaths.
While these two severe weather events occupied opposite ends of the spectrum and required different responses, there are lessons to be learned from both in terms of how government and public health officials deal with extreme weather.
Now, with funding from the National Science Foundation, a team of researchers from three universities is examining the different ways in which extreme heat and cold impact the nation’s cities. They are focusing on case studies in two regions that have gained national headlines in recent years for their severe weather: Maricopa County, Arizona, which includes the cities of Phoenix and Tempe, and the Western New York county of Erie, which includes Buffalo.
Although Cleveland and its suburbs are at risk, public health experts view healthy housing and environmental programs developed there as national models. I also hoped that research results would be useful to other cities in the Great Lakes region.
I focused on the perceptions of a specific set of people – professionals from the health, building and urban sectors – because they have significant influence on how programs and policies are created. Professionals also tend to serve as experts, operating in a middle area between government officials and the public.
After attending numerous municipal meetings, reading reams of policy documents and completing dozens of interviews, I was surprised to find that local professionals disagreed on how to prepare for heat waves. Public health officials felt that cooling centers and air conditioning were critical. Energy efficiency experts wanted to see more funding spent on home energy efficiency. City planners called for increasing tree cover to shade pavement and buildings.
This made me wonder: If the experts don’t agree, is there one approach that works better than others?
Active, passive and urban cooling
Cooling centers and central air conditioning protect people by lowering indoor air temperature and humidity. However, not everyone can access cool locations like libraries or recreation centers during heat waves. Some people have limited mobility or lack access to transportation. For this reason, public health officials often tout residential air conditioning as an important intervention.
Unfortunately, air conditioning is an “active” system. It requires electricity and doesn’t work when the power is out. This is a problem because as the mercury climbs, blackouts also increase.
As a result, building energy efficiency experts are interested in “passive” cooling systems – solutions that don’t depend on the electrical grid. Window shades, light-colored building materials and radiant barriers in attics are time-honored techniques. If the power goes out, these systems can still help. This is called improving “passive survivability.”
But while these techniques moderate interior temperatures, indoor conditions are still typically within a few degrees of the outdoor air temperature. This means that if it’s over 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius) in the afternoon, it’s still going to be in the 90°F (32°C) range indoors. Passive systems alone won’t help vulnerable populations like the elderly ride out extreme heat events.
This is why city planners advocate for planting street trees to promote urban cooling. Leafy trees and shrubs provide shade and increase evaporation of water from the ground, cooling the air. But like passive systems, these approaches serve only to moderate local temperatures. If a massive heat wave settles over a region, it’s still going to be extremely hot outside.
Since no approach is foolproof, why not apply apply all of these strategies? One challenge is that with limited funding, there may not be enough money to go around.
Moreover, these strategies may actually conflict with one another. Air conditioning systems reduce interior temperatures, but they increase household energy consumption, undoing the work of energy efficiency experts. In addition, air conditioners exhaust waste heat from inside houses to the outdoors, further warming surrounding neighborhoods.
To address these conflicts, we need to make stronger connections between the environmental health science, building science and urban climate communities. Fortunately, cities like Cleveland are making strides in this direction.
The effort, led by Cleveland Neighborhood Progress, generated a series of climate adaptation strategies, including complementary ideas to reduce heat stress at the house, block, neighborhood and city levels. These ideas were incorporated into a climate resilience plan that will guide local efforts through 2018.
Although it’s still early in the process, results from this collaborative effort are encouraging. Community members are engaging with city staff and preparing climate emergency kits to distribute to residents. These kits will contain information on cooling centers, weather radios to keep residents informed, and guidance on stocking food and water to ride out a multi-day emergency without power.
Scholars from university health, architecture and planning departments are also discussing heat preparedness challenges with the Cleveland emergency operations center and local community development corporations. Current efforts focus on setting up additional cooling centers, weatherizing homes and using vacant lots as green space to buffer temperatures.
In Cleveland, preparing for extreme heat events has brought professionals together and encouraged overlapping approaches because no single strategy is foolproof. Other cities, like Baltimore and Providence, are working on similar multifaceted approaches.
We recently completed a short video abstract about our research for the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, or NYSERDA. The project will inform ongoing work to respond to climate change in New York State.