Extreme heat kills, but not everyone’s risk is the same.
Large metropolitan areas like Kansas City see hotter summertime temperatures than their surrounding rural areas — a phenomenon known as an “urban heat island.”
In most cities, heat islands can be seen in some neighborhoods where it is considerably hotter — by as much as 20 degrees — than other neighborhoods. Those heat islands are often home to poorer communities of color, due largely to the historic practices of redlining, discriminatory lending and housing polices based on race, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
In a few weeks, a group of about 30 volunteers will drive through area neighborhoods as part of a research project to find out where those heat islands exist in Kansas City. Their cars will be equipped with special sensors to collect climate data.
The goal is to answer the question: Who is the most vulnerable when Kansas City reaches the hottest time of the year?
“We want to show and study how the excessive warming pattern is distributed across our backyard in the KC metro area,” said Fengpeng Sun, assistant professor with the University of Missouri—Kansas City’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, which is leading the campaign.
The answer could lead to solutions that not only affect the quality of life of those living in hotter neighborhoods, but also affect their health as well — extreme heat increases the risk of respiratory illnesses, heat exhaustion, heat stroke and even death.
“In the urban heat, especially the excessive and prolonged heat waves, you’re going to have very serious health impacts including the heat stress during heat waves,” Sun said.
Those living in heat islands can be exposed to increased levels of ground-level ozone pollution and other greenhouse gases as well spend more of their income to air condition their homes and buildings.
Living in a heat island
Kansas City is among the worst when it comes to the difference of temperatures between the city and its surrounding rural area. It had the seventh greatest urban heat island intensity out of 60 cities analyzed in a 2014 study by the Climate Central.
The average summertime daily temperature in Kansas City’s urban core can be as much as four to five degrees hotter than rural areas, Sun said.
“This difference could be as large as 28 degrees in certain times of the day during a certain hot day,” he said. “It’s really kind of a big problem not only for us but also for I think most majority of metropolitan areas.”
Because those with lower median household income typically live in those areas, they tend to be affected the most by the urban heat island effect, the study found.
In Kansas City, that longstanding racial dividing line is Troost Avenue, which often defines an individual’s level of wealth and life expectancy, depending on whether you live east of Troost or to the west, according to the Kansas City, Missouri, Health Department.
This summer’s research in Kansas City is part of a larger effort to map the hottest parts of cities across the country. NOAA’s National Integrated Heat Health Information System announced it would conduct the research in 11 states this summer.
The other communities are Albuquerque, New Mexico; Atlanta; New York City; Charleston, South Carolina; Raleigh & Durham, North Carolina; San Diego; San Francisco; and parts of New Jersey, Indiana, Massachusetts and Virginia.
“Our Nation faces a growing climate crisis that has exacerbated inequities, particularly for the low-income and communities of color,” said U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina M. Raimondo in a news release in April.
“The Biden-Harris Administration is ready to take swift action to tackle climate change, and we at the Department of Commerce are so pleased to be partnering with communities around the country toward equitable climate resilience by working with them to design safer, more livable, and healthier cities.”
The research, a collaborative project with CAPA Strategies, LLC, has been mapping heat islands in other cities over the past four years.
Mapping the most vulnerable
As a climate scientist, Sun said he’s interested in this type of climate phenomenon and has been researching climate change and its impact. When he learned of NOAA’s urban heat mapping campaign, he felt it was a good opportunity to leverage his research with a local campaign to help understand the phenomenon in Kansas City.
This is Sun’s second attempt at mapping Kansas City’s heat island. He applied for funding last year, but wasn’t selected. This year, however, he received about $9,000 to do the research and some additional funding through local partners
“Kansas City is the only city from the middle or heartland of the country,” Sun said. “So we feel very, you know, kind of honored.”
UMKC’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences has partnered with Kansas City’s Office of Environmental Quality, the Missouri Local Science Engagement Network, the Mid-America Regional Council, the Missouri Office of the Public Counsel, Evergy, Bridging The Gap Inc. and the Kansas City Teen Summit to do the research.
The campaign is still in the draft stage and a date to collect the data has not been selected yet, but Sun said they are looking to conduct the mapping sometime at the end of July to early August, which is typically the hottest time of the year in Kansas City. They will rely on forecasts from the National Weather Service in Kansas City to help select the date.
“The idea is that we’re going to pick up a pretty hot day,” he said.
Ideally, it would be similar to the stretch of hot days that Kansas City experienced last week, when temperatures were in the upper 90s and the heat index values were above 100 degrees.
The study’s boundaries will roughly be the Missouri and Kansas state line to the west, the Missouri River to the north and the Interstate 435 loop to the east and south. That area will be divided into 10 sub areas.
Volunteers with sensors mounted to their cars will drive designated routes on the selected day. As they drive, they will collect real time heat data like air temperature, humidity and GPS every one to two seconds, Sun said.
The trips will be done three times that day — once in the morning, once in the afternoon around what is typically the hottest part of the day, and then once in the evening.
“We definitely need some kind of volunteers to join us,” Sun said.
The campaign is currently looking for volunteers and has a online form people can fill out. The campaign also is looking to attract students by distributing fliers on the UMKC campus and by working with Bridging the Gap.
The campaign is trying to raise attention of the urban heat island effect, human-induced climate change and the adverse impacts of heat.
The data will later be combined with satellite imagery with the ultimate goal to have a map showing what parts of the metro are hotter than others and who are the most vulnerable when temperatures soar.
Finding solutions to KC’s heat islands
The heat island mapping campaign comes at a time when Kansas City’s Office of Environmental Quality is updating its climate protection plan to include a resiliency plan, which includes a climate risk and vulnerability assessment for Kansas City.
“The whole point of that is to just show Kansas City’s adaptive capacity to the impact of climate change so that we as decision makers can understand the climate risks associated with this particular area and then identify actions we can take to be more resilient as a city,” said Lara Isch, sustainability manager for the Office of Environmental Quality.
“This was on our radar, we wanted to do it but it was a big lift with what we were already doing in our very small office.”
Although Kansas City would like to eventually map the entire city to show heat islands, officials felt this summer’s research was a good starting place that could eventually be increased so that there’s a full heat island map for the entire Kansas City region, she said.
By mapping the city’s heat islands and then cross referencing that information with socio-economic data, the city will be able to direct its resources and climate policy to areas that are most in need, Isch said.
“We already know from our regional vulnerability assessment that Kansas City is going to be facing increased climate risks from really two major things,” Isch said. “One of those is flooding and the other one is heat.”
Kansas City is looking at up to 75 more hot days by the end of the century compared to the beginning of the century, she said.
“Not only were we looking at more hot days, but we’re looking at a probability of more days where it doesn’t cool off at night at all, which those are the days that really start to cause problems for people when their homes can’t cool down and their bodies can’t reset,” Isch said.
The poor and elderly population, as well as those who live alone or don’t speak English very well, are likely to experience more adverse effects from the impacts of climate change than others, Isch said.
A 2016 energy burden study found that low-income households already devote up to three times as much income to energy costs as do high-income households. In Kansas City, low-income households spend about 8.5% of their income on utilities. Nationally, higher income households pay 2.3%.
The study by American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy and the Energy Efficiency for All coalition also found that African-American and Latino households spend disproportionate amounts of their income on energy and that more energy efficiency measures would help close the gap by at least one-third.
“They’re also people a lot of times that have other health issues associated with the areas they live in due to air pollution, smog from the highways or industrial facilities, which are also made worse by high heat,” Isch said.
If you live in a heat island, there are steps you can take to reduce its impact, including increasing the shade around your home by planting trees and other vegetation, planting rooftop gardens, installing cool or reflective roofs and replacing appliances and equipment with more energy efficient options.
But those options might not be available to those living in poverty. For them, especially the elderly, the young and the sick, they need to have access to air conditioning or cooling centers to help prevent heat-related illnesses and death during heat waves.
The city’s air pollution issues, climate issues, heat islands and health issues are all intertwined from a sustainability perspective in the city, Isch said.
The update to the city’s climate plan is focusing on racial equity and will include climate justice workers who will go into low-income neighborhoods and areas where the life expectancy is considerably lower — in some cases by 15 years or more — than other parts of the city to learn how policy has failed them in the past and ways to make it better, she said.
“Unless we’re looking after those that have been marginalized in the past, we’re never going to make it better for everyone,” Isch said.