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Urban poor most vulnerable to extreme heat

Researchers study impacts of Valley’s extreme heat

The urban poor – already a vulnerable population – are the most susceptible to extreme heat. That is one of the findings from an interdisciplinary team of researchers from Arizona State University, NASA’s Johnson Space Center and the University of California at Riverside.

The team is engaged in a National Science Foundation-funded project exploring long-lasting heat waves and the relationship between temperature variations and socioeconomic variables in metropolitan Phoenix.

Remotely sensed imagery from NASA – taken from planes and satellites – is among the data being used to piece together a history of the metro Phoenix heat island, including how temperatures and vegetation patterns changed across the region from the early 1970s to 2000.

One finding is that poorer residents tend to live at the urban core, where vegetation is at a minimum and the presence of heat-absorbing and re-radiating asphalt and concrete is abundant, producing the most intense heat island effect. By contrast, people with higher incomes usually reside further away from the heart of the city and in homes surrounded by cooling vegetation.

Sharon Harlan, a sociologist in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences’ School of Human Evolution and Social Change, is part of the team of educators, public health experts and social and natural scientists looking into how long-lived heat waves affect Phoenix residents. She stresses the seriousness of heat-related illness and death, as well as the likelihood that severity will rise. “Each year, heat fatalities in the U.S. occur in greater numbers than mortality from any other type of weather disaster. Global climate changes and rapidly growing cities are likely to compound and intensify the adverse health effects of heat islands around the world.”

She points out that the results of the team’s project could be used to help mitigate the damage, stating, “We want our research to be used to promote better decision-making about climate adaptation in cities.”

The remotely sensed data, which are used to not only look at past changes but also to build predictive simulations of what may occur, could be tools for, among others, city planners and emergency responders.

William Stefanov, senior geoscientist with Jacobs Technology in Johnson Space Center’s Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science Directorate, is providing the orbital view of the Phoenix area for the project.

“A lot of urban development is taking place around the world in arid or semiarid climates,” he says. “By studying Phoenix, researchers can better understand what these developing cities may face and how their environments may change as populations expand.”

More – http://asunews.asu.edu/20100811_NASA_heat

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