Pat Meyers and Deborah Rylander took a drive around Boulder Friday afternoon. Their cruise in a white Audi, with a heat sensor affixed to a window, was part of one of the largest heat-mapping projects in the U.S.
The project, which required the help of almost a hundred volunteers, was part of an annual project that assesses the hottest and coolest parts of 14 U.S. cities and counties to help plan and prepare for the extreme heat waves scientists have been warning about for years. When Meyers and Rylander drove off, the National Weather Service forecast a high of 97 degrees for the day.
“We’re hoping to show, one, what areas of the city are hottest, and then, we’re also looking at why those areas are hot: Is there a lot of impervious surface? Is there not a lot of tree coverage? Is there not a lot of shading in those areas?” said Adam Hall, a graduate student at the University of Colorado studying urban resilience and sustainability, who is helping to lead the local initiative.
Meyers, Rylander and many other volunteers picked up gear they needed to participate from a location in downtown Boulder.
The two women attached the heat sensor and then drove to Tom Watson Park, north of Boulder Reservoir. From there, they were supposed to drive a meandering route through the city, trying to maintain a steady speed of 35 mph as the sensor made measurements every second, recording temperature, humidity, time of day and location until the drive ended near Foothills Community Park in the north Boulder foothills.
After the drive was over, they were supposed to return the sensor to leaders of the local heat mapping study to help scientists begin their analysis.
The annual heat mapping inequities project is led by the National Oceanic Atmospheric Association and CAPA Strategies, a climate planning and analysis consulting firm.
“We want to get people to start thinking about the relationship between heat and the built-in environment and then propose solutions for how we can cool those parts of the city,” Hall said on Thursday.
Other volunteers traversed Boulder’s neighborhoods by car, bike and foot to collect heat, temperature and humidity data. In all, 21 teams drove seven routes across Boulder during three shifts on Friday. Some used sensors attached to their vehicles, while others used hygrometers attached to their bicycles, to reach areas that were inaccessible by car.
In a separate activity to engage local youth, high school students used thermal cameras to capture thermal images that are used to determine the hottest and coolest surface temperatures.
The routes zig-zagged all over Boulder, but also mapped neighborhoods where vulnerable people live, including city-managed affordable housing and mobile home communities.
Some low-income people live in housing that has poor insulation, windows and doors, or doesn’t have air conditioning. Studies of the urban tree canopy show some low-income neighborhoods don’t have trees that provide shade and relief from rising temperatures.
“As climate change worsens, it worsens inequities because it does affect the most vulnerable people,” Hall said.
Meyers and Rylander heard about the local heat mapping initiative through email alerts from Ecocycle, the Boulder county recycling center, and the newsletter published by the Boulder Reporting Lab, a nonprofit news organization.
The experiment was over before it started for them, though. When they arrived at Tom Watson Park, their sensor had malfunctioned and so they were unable to complete the route. The malfunction represents one of the many logistical challenges project leaders had hoped not to face.
Rylander has lived in Boulder for about two decades and said it’s one of the hottest summers she can recall. Her interest in environmental issues led her to volunteer for Friday’s initiative.
“This felt like something I could do easily, and I like the localness of it,” she said. “I can see it happening, I can participate, and it’s not just about giving money.”
Some local teams across the country are mapping “urban heat islands,” or areas that can be up to 20 degrees hotter than their nearby neighborhoods.
Other heat data collections are also underway this summer in Nevada, South Carolina, Ohio, Florida, Tennessee, Wisconsin, Maryland, Nebraska, Washington, Philadelphia, New York and San Francisco. NOAA is also working with local groups on international heat mapping campaigns in Freetown, Sierra Leone and Rio de Janeiro.
Boulder’s event on Friday was one of the first in this year’s data-collection work. Project leaders worked with local forecasters and aimed to run the event on one of the hottest and driest days of the year with minimal cloud coverage.
“In the face of a warming climate, it’s vital to understand which parts of the city are at the greatest risk due to hot and dry weather,” City of Boulder Policy Advisor Brett KenCairn said. “This data will help us direct investments in natural climate solutions, like trees, gardens and green spaces, to the places that need it the most.”
Extreme heat kills more Americans than any other weather event. And as many regions across the U.S. and the rest of the globe continue facing deadly heat waves, researchers and scientists at NOAA are working with communities across the country to help them take action to manage that extreme heat, according to a public statement released by NOAA.
The climate crisis has exacerbated inequities for low-income communities, people of color and those living in urban areas without any trees nearby for shade or cooling, NOAA said.
Trees and green spaces can make people healthier and happier, but maps show communities of color and low-income neighborhoods across metro Denver have less access to shade.
To help reduce the negative effects from extreme heat, over the last five years, NOAA has funded CAPA Strategies to provide scientific support to 35 community-led campaigns to map urban heat islands. During the 2021 urban heat island campaign, 799 citizen scientists took 1.2 million measurements in 24 communities.
The 2022 heat mapping campaign will feature new technology that better characterizes urban climate and health hazards. Columbus, Ohio, and Philadelphia, for example, are using mobile air quality monitors to understand the impacts of heat and air quality.
Cities that participated in past campaigns have used their heat island maps to develop heat action plans, add cooling stations to bus shelters, educate residents and policymakers, and inform new research.
Last year, the National Integrated Heat Health Information System funded five new research projects in American cities to help develop tools for equitable heat intervention, investigate heat in rural areas, and smaller cities, and determine the effect of coastlines on urban heat patterns.
NOAA’s mapping study is part of President Joe Biden’s Justice40 initiative, which works to ensure that federal agencies partner with states and local communities to deliver on Biden’s promise to deliver 40% of the overall benefits of certain investments such as climate and clean energy flow to underserved communities overburdened by pollution.
When evaluating applications for the 2022 heat mapping campaigns, the National Integrated Heat Health Information System team gave priority to applications focused on environmental justice. Communities involved in the 2022 program will assist with tracking and reporting the allocation of benefits to ensure adequate inclusion of environmental justice communities, and these outcomes will be shared with the White House, according to a public statement released by NOAA.
Once communities deliver their heat measuring sensors to NOAA and CAPA Strategies, the organizations will analyze the data and turn it into a heat map that will then be sent to municipal leaders who will present the findings to local people. Those results are expected to become available within six to eight weeks, Hall said.
Once the analysis is complete, and project leaders understand where the hottest areas are in Boulder, the heat map will help inform strategic nature-based climate solutions, such as tree planting, and using other natural features that can cool down the hottest areas in the city, Hall said.
“Boulder is trying to lead the way in natural climate solutions, and heat mapping is one of the tools to kickstart that work,” he said. “Boulder also currently has about 50 stationary heat sensors around town collecting heat data. So, I think NOAA and CAPA Strategies were kind of intrigued by the idea of having a really robust map comparing their tool to the stationary sensors tool, and seeing how they can work together.”
NOAA has run the heat mapping project annually since 2017.
MORE: A map of testing routes and places of interest is available online. To keep up with the nationwide 2022 campaigns, subscribe to NOAA’s Heat Beat Newsletter.