EnviroLab gets NASA grant for heat mapping

Angel Hsu sitting on stool

By Institute for the Environment

As climate change continues to set record heat temperatures across the globe, scientists and policymakers are looking for ways to mitigate the effects of heat exposure on human health.

A new $1.5 million grant from NASA will allow an interdisciplinary team of Carolina researchers to evaluate disparities in heat stress from environmental and climate injustices across the U.S. The team from the Data-Driven EnviroLab at the UNC Institute for the Environment will harness the power of satellite remote sensing data, community-collected temperature data and machine learning for the project.

“Knowing where vulnerabilities exist will increase equity in climate resiliency planning and policymaking,” wrote Angel Hsu in the proposal to NASA. Hsu is the lab’s founder and director and an assistant professor of public policy.

At risk from killer heat
Exposure to excessive heat causes many uncomfortable symptoms — respiratory complications, heat cramps, exhaustion, heat stroke and dehydration — and can also be fatal. According to the National Weather Service, heat kills more people in the U.S. than floods, hurricanes and tornadoes combined. Extreme heat is even more dangerous in urban areas, where crowded buildings and impervious surfaces such as asphalt contribute to a phenomenon called the urban heat island effect. This puts low-income populations and people of color who are disproportionally exposed to higher temperatures within urban areas at higher risk.

The research team will evaluate historical disparities and how they have changed over time using satellite-derived land surface temperature readings and demographic census data, such as age, race, ethnicity and income.

The team will then combine land surface temperature measurements with on-the-ground measurements and machine learning algorithms to generate high-resolution estimates of heat stress, which they will pilot in four locations: Phoenix, Philadelphia, Chicago and the Raleigh-Durham metro area in North Carolina before scaling to other U.S. cities. Having higher-resolution data than just land surface temperature measurements will allow the team to better understand the impacts on health, disparities and mitigation measures.

Collaborating with communities
As a collaborator on the project, the researchers enlisted the North Carolina Museum of Life and Science, which worked with the lab on a 2021 heat map of Chapel Hill.

Max Cawley, the museum’s public engagement manager, will lead the convening of a community advisory council that will co-design research questions, a solutions framework and tools to make all data and products accessible. This collaboration ensures that the researchers keep the perspectives of community stakeholders in mind at every stage of the research process.

Once the methodology is developed, the research team will apply it to the other cities, leaning on existing connections the team has cultivated with stakeholders on the ground in these communities.

The grant also will allow the team to model heat mitigation measures to help cities reduce heat stress through urban planning policies, such as planting trees or managing light reflection off urban surfaces. It also will allow them to use future climate projections to model mitigation scenarios.

“Our method is an innovative approach to develop new, high-resolution data and insights that have the potential to be scaled to other cities and contexts. With these data and insights, cities will be better prepared for extreme heat events due to climate change by knowing where to direct resources and which areas may be the most vulnerable,” Hsu said.

The team plans to make their research and data publicly available on the DataDriven Enviro-Lab website upon completion.

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