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UCSD study finds lower-income, minority communities impacted more by extreme heat

Authors say more vegetation, building changes can lessen temps
Heat is the number one cause of weather-related deaths every year, killing more people than hurricanes or floods.
Posted at 12:11 PM, Jul 13, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-13 15:17:28-04

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) — A new UCSD study found that lower-income neighborhoods and communities with higher minority populations experience more extreme heat than wealthier and predominantly white neighborhoods.

The analysis looked at about 1,000 U.S. counties and found that for 71% of these counties, land surface temperatures in communities with higher rates of poverty can be up to 7 degrees Fahrenheit warmer during the summer months, compared to more affluent neighborhoods. The same was true for minority communities compared to predominantly non-Hispanic, white neighborhoods.

"The physical features driving surface heat spikes in these urban environments are fairly consistent across the country, even for cities with very different geographies and histories," said co-author Susanne Benz. "Systematically, the disproportionate heat surface exposures faced by low-income communities with larger minority populations are due to more built-up neighborhoods, less vegetation, and – to a lesser extent – higher population density."

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Extreme heat has been linked to consequences like premature births, lower test scores, increased risk of heatstroke, and decreases in productivity.

Co-author Jennifer Burney added, "particularly in summer, warming in cities due to alterations of the surface energy balance jeopardizes human health and productivity. The distribution of excess urban heat varies within cities, and as a result, communities do not share a city’s extreme heat burden equally."

Policies to help address the impact of rising temperatures on communities included more vegetation and adjusting building and roof colors to reduce heat, according to a separate study, the Environmental Research Letter, also authored by Benz and Burney, as well as co-author Steven Davis of UC Irvine.

“With more trees and greenery planted and changing building materials to pale colors that attract less sun, damages caused by urban heating in these areas could be offset,” the authors note.

That study found the more vegetation could reduce summer temperatures on average by 1 degree Fahrenheit for 59 percent of the urban population. If building and roof colors are adjusted in addition to the increase in vegetation, temperatures can drop by as much as 4.6 degrees Fahrenheit, reducing heat for 83 percent of urban residents.

"Smart urban planning cannot continue to be treated as a luxury item or else the most vulnerable populations will be further left behind and heat-based suffering will worsen for billions around the world," Benz and Burney write. "Access to livable urban temperatures for all neighborhoods must become something we consider as essential for the vibrancy and functionality in our cities."