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Nancy Anderson, Ph.D.Torchlight

Beat The Extreme Heat

By: Nancy Anderson, Ph.D.

November 30, 2015

OK, writing about scorching hot weather in December may seem a bit odd, but bear with me. Global temperature trends, with 2015 on track for being the hottest year in the historical record, and with the evidence in hand to debunk climate denialist claims of a pause or hiatus in global warming over the last 15 years mean that deep damage to the Earth's climate is happening now. And that's not all for city dwellers. The urban heat island effect (UHIE) at the city-scale is something we are already all too familiar with. With temperatures rising 4–8 degrees Fahrenheit above surrounding areas and staying hotter at night time, UHIE makes us more than sweaty and sticky; it makes us sick; and heat stroke poses increased risk of dying, especially for the elderly and the frail.

Here's the hopeful message in this onslaught of grim tidings — there is actually a great deal that can be done to cut down on UHIE.

At a November 2015 conference, Extreme Heat/Hot Cities: Adapting to a Hotter World organized by the American Institute of Architects New York Chapter (AIA NY) Design for Risk & Reconstruction Committee, a panoply of experts provided a range of ideas to raise "the capacity of design professionals to mitigate, adapt, and recover rapidly from disasters along with the broader risk-aware community."

The expertise of conference speakers and the diverse make-up of the audience — a broader community that includes health professionals, urban environmental innovators, academic experts in urban infrastructure and government policy makers — is a strong sign that protecting the health of the most vulnerable among us is well within reach. Furthermore, the conference has brought into a single focus the possibility for mitigating key urban heat impacts of climate change by way of implementing sensible UHIE-reducing measures along with gathering useful information about local conditions at the micro-scale. It left me wondering, "Gee, why didn't I think of that!"

According to conference organizer and Committee Co-founder and Co-Chair Ilya Azaroff, New York City's climate-linked vulnerability to storm surges and flooding has been well covered since Superstorm Sandy. His growing concern about urban heat dynamics has been propelled by experts on aging who have detailed the health risks posed by extreme heat, which is the number one killer attributed to climate change. With seniors projected to make up 20% of New York City's population by 2030, the rising number of citizens vulnerable to unprecedented and lethal extreme heat is cause for concerted action starting today.

Listening to the numerous proposals made by conference speakers, certain hands-on, can-do themes emerged. Among them were:

• Engineering and technology fixes to recycle or waste heat as a source of re-useable energy. Architect Chris Benedict cited the importance of storing and re-using waste heat from air-conditioners and installing on-site energy cogeneration. With such measures, both UHIE and climate change can be mitigated with immediate benefits accruing to a less scorching hot urban experience;

• Installing white/blue/green roofs;

• Director of Policy at Urban Green Council and former staff in the Mayor's Sustainability Office Laurie Kerr recommend repaving urban streets and sidewalks with light-colored materials that reflect rather than absorb and re-radiate summer's heat;

• Fostering new urban development along mass transit corridors to make it easier for urbanites to go carless; and,

• Deploying micro-scale ground and air temperature sensors was called for by Brian Stone, Professor of City and Regional Planning at Georgia Institute of Technology. Ground-level temperatures run higher than air readings in summer and it is the number with the biggest health significance. As an added benefit, such micro-scale data becomes a good way to measure and monitor the impact of a city's cooling and greening measures.

Developing a UHIE campaign is something well within the reach of New York and other cities. If any added inducement were needed, such a campaign would entail actions that are climate friendly too. Think of it as a tightly focused agenda for walking us back from the brink of killer heat and advancing the goal of cities like New York to cut their carbon footprint 80% by 2050, even if they can't reverse the global heating trend acting on their own.

Such a campaign is also eminently doable at the neighborhood and district scale. It's exciting to think of neighborhood UHIE projects as living labs that can be scaled-up (or tweaked and scaled-up) to an entire city and then emulated by other cities by way of potent idea innovators and communicators like C40 or Resilient Cities with their climate, sustainability and mitigation goals. Conference organizer Ilya Azaroff has a short-list of event outcomes he would like to see. It starts with amending the New York City building code and making advances in building science education. His take away message from Extreme Heat/Hot Cities is that individuals and institutions must know the consequences of the choices they make and people can take action once they know what the risks are.

With Azaroff's message in mind, let's ring out 2015 and ring in 2016 with this meme, it's up to us whether the world gets hotter or it gets a lot hotter.

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