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Citizen Scientists Map Extreme Heat In Richmond, Virginia Cities

Using car-mounted sensors, volunteers are driving around and collecting heat data. (Photo: Patrick Larsen/VPM News)

Todd Lookingbill, a geography and environment professor at the University of Richmond, has not missed the significance of temperature in today’s news cycle. 

“Right now, I think there’s 28 million people in the West that are experiencing temperatures over 100 degrees,” Lookingbill said. He pointed out the drawn out highs of 90 degrees or higher that Richmond has been experiencing.

So, it feels like an appropriate time for the project that he helped organize in the city and across the state: The nation’s largest temperature data collection project.

Students and faculty from thirteen Virginia colleges worked on the project this week. They’re attempting to better understand how extreme heat affects cities and their residents. 

The methods for this kind of testing are fairly simple - just strap a specialized temperature monitor to your car window and drive. Citizen scientists followed specified routes at three different times over the course of the day - 6 a.m., 3 p.m., and 7 p.m. - to get a sense of how urban areas heat up and cool down.

Sarah Page Steffens, one of the two University of Richmond students leading the research, said she was still in pajamas for the first round of data collection.

“It was definitely early. Me and my partner just rolled out of bed and hopped in the car and drove our route,” Steffens said.

The measurements are part of the Heat Watch project organized by the nonprofit Virginia Foundation for Independent Colleges. In Richmond, the University of Richmond and VCU are partnering with the Science Museum of Virginia, the Virginia Department of Forestry, GroundworkRVA and more.

“So we have this global warming that’s occurring, and put on top of that, it’s being exacerbated or made much worse in these cities,” Lookingbill told a group of volunteers at the Science Museum on Wednesday.

This phenomenon is called the Urban Heat Island effect. It’s caused by relatively low vegetation and high impervious surface coverage - roads, parking lots and asphalt in general. 

Last month in Eugene, Oregon, where Olympic Trials were postponed due to excessive heat,- USA Track and Field told NBC News that on-track temperatures exceeded 150 degrees. Lookingbill said the track is a “hot, dark surface that absorbs heat and therefore gets hotter than the surrounding vegetation - and it’s a great example of what we’re going to be studying.”

Heat islands have been the subject of increased scientific and media attention in recent years, as people attempt to understand present-day impacts of climate change.

In Richmond, data from the Science Museum’s 2017 temperature study gives a point of comparison.

“We’re expecting a lot of it to be similar and reflect similar trends from 2017. But also it’s been four years, and in that time, the world’s climate is changing a lot,” Steffens said. 

It also offers some proof of the data’s potential for application. It’s been used by many groups in the city, such as the Office of Sustainability with their Environmental Justice mapping project.

Lookingbill said this effort will cover some gaps left in the 2017 map, particularly in Southside. The researchers will also be collecting data on particulate matter in the air.

“It will be used for climate change mitigation. It will be used for emergency preparedness and management, social justice issues, student engagement and so on,” he said, drawing special attention to the demographics of the city’s hottest areas.

Recent research by the Science Museum and University of Richmond, using the 2017 data, shows the hottest parts of cities often have a history of redlining - a New Deal Era racist housing and development practice. 

Redlining targeted majority Black and working class neighborhoods as “hazardous,” or less desirable for investment. Today, those areas are most susceptible to heat - low tree coverage and sprawling asphalt cause temperatures to rise more quickly and reach higher peaks. Researchers found a particularly strong correlation in parts of Southside.

Steffens is hopeful that the research will help Richmond to address some of those inequities.  She wants to see “some more green spaces to really combat excessive heat spots in the city.”

There isn’t existing data for all of the cities being studied this year: Abingdon, Arlington, Farmville, Harrisonburg, Lynchburg, Petersburg, Richmond, Salem, Virginia Beach, and Winchester. Organizers say they hope the research will begin to develop an understanding of the urban heat island effect statewide.

Researchers expect to have an update on their findings in coming months.


Patrick Larsen is VPM News' environment and energy reporter, and fill-in host.
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