UNC Charlotte researchers to lead community science heat mapping campaign

Categories: Research Tags: CHESS, Research

This summer, the Charlotte Heat Mappers, a coalition of community organizations, nonprofits and government entities led by UNC Charlotte’s Department of Earth, Environmental and Geographical Sciences, will oversee a community science campaign to map variations in urban heat across the city. Charlotte is one of 14 U.S. communities and four international cities selected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to join its 2024 Urban Heat Island mapping campaign. This effort is designed to identify areas where people are most at risk during extreme heat waves.

According to NOAA, extreme heat has been the No. 1 weather-related cause of death in the U.S. for the last three decades. Urban heat islands — areas with few trees and more pavement that absorbs heat — can be up to 20 degrees hotter than neighborhoods with more trees, grass and less asphalt. The health risk burden associated with extreme heat is not distributed equitably and disproportionately affects vulnerable populations such as low-income communities and communities of color. Local environmental factors such as humidity and air pollution can further compound health risks. Understanding the distribution of heat across different areas of the urban environment can support safer, more resilient communities and help inform more equitable heat mitigation strategies.

NOAA’s heat island mapping program is part of the Biden Administration’s Justice40 initiative, which ensures that federal agencies work with states and local communities to deliver 40% of benefits from federal investment in climate and clean energy to disadvantaged communities. A demonstrated commitment to environmental justice was one of the key criteria used for evaluating applications for the 2024 heat island mapping campaigns.

Using specially designed sensors mounted on their cars, community volunteers will drive predetermined routes to record ambient temperatures and humidity in the morning, afternoon and evening on one of the city’s hottest days of the year. CAPA Strategies, NOAA’s science consultant, will then compile the information into area-wide maps and a report that will help local decision-makers, planners and health organizations take action to reduce the health impacts of extreme heat. The data from the UHI campaigns are open access and available on the federal website HEAT.gov. Reports from previously mapped cities, including Raleigh and Durham’s 2021 campaign, are available online. The report from Asheville’s 2023 campaign is not yet available.

Charlotte’s mapping campaign will most likely take place in mid-July. Community scientists will be recruited in May and June via a call for volunteers from the Charlotte Heat Mappers, who encourage Charlotte residents to sign up for the project.

“This is truly a community-driven effort,” said Katherine Idziorek, a UNC Charlotte urban planning researcher who leads the Charlotte Heat Mappers coalition. “Our partners are hungry to learn more about the distribution of urban heat across our city. We are very excited about the potential of this data to empower Charlotte communities and to help them advocate for solutions that will improve their health and wellbeing.” The multidisciplinary UNC Charlotte team also includes researchers Matthew Eastin, Douglas Shoemaker, Michelle Zuñiga, Veronica Westendorff and graduate research assistant Joe Wiswell.

Cities from past campaigns have used their heat island data and maps to implement tree planting strategies, inform communities of the location of cooling shelters, develop heat action plans, educate residents and policymakers, and inform new research.

To volunteer for the Charlotte 2024 campaign and to stay informed via their monthly newsletter, email the UNC Charlotte Heat Mappers team at heatmappers@charlotte.edu. To learn more about the heat mapping campaign, follow @charlotteheatmappers on Instagram or check out the Charlotte Heat Mappers website.