Release Date December 4, 2017 This content is archived.
A scorching heat wave in the Phoenix area killed more than 100 people in the summer of 2016 as temperatures soared to near 120 degrees.
Over three days in November 2014, a massive snowstorm — dubbed “Snowvember” — dumped more than 7 feet of snow across parts of Western New York, causing 13 deaths.
While these two severe weather events occupied opposite ends of the spectrum and required different responses, there are lessons to be learned from both in terms of how government and public health officials deal with extreme weather.
Now, with funding from the National Science Foundation, a team of researchers from three universities is examining the different ways in which extreme heat and cold impact the nation’s cities. They are focusing on case studies in two regions that have gained national headlines in recent years for their severe weather: Maricopa County, Arizona, which includes the cities of Phoenix and Tempe, and the Western New York county of Erie, which includes Buffalo.
“We’re interested in the national, cumulative experience. But focusing on Maricopa County and Erie County will enable us to develop a set of factors and conditions that will serve as good comparative case studies that represent broader national experiences because the two regions are so different geographically and socially,” says Zoé Hamstead, assistant professor of environmental planning in the University at Buffalo’s School of Architecture and Planning.
“The issues both communities face with severe weather are going to be quite different as well,” adds Hamstead, PhD, noting that, for example, the building stock in Buffalo is much older than Phoenix and Tempe. That can lead to more structural damage, which was the case during Snowvember when hundreds of roofs caved in under the weight of the heavy snow.
Hamstead is one of several co-investigators on the project. The team includes Nicholas Rajkovich, who directs the Resilient Buildings Lab at UB; Paul Coseo, the project’s principal investigator who is an assistant professor of landscape architecture in Arizona State University’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, and senior sustainability scientist at ASU’s Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability; Ariane Middel, assistant professor of geography and urban studies at Temple University; and David Hondula, assistant professor of geographical sciences and urban planning at ASU, where he is also a senior sustainability scientist.
UB master of urban planning students Lauren Darcy and Will Siegner are also assisting with the project by conducting thermal vulnerability and management assessment, and helping to facilitate workshops.
The project is being funded by the NSF for one year at $100,000, but researchers plan to continue their work for years to come. NSF recently awarded $19.5 million across 38 projects as part of its Smart and Connected Communities initiative.
Smart and Connected Communities aims to bring together researchers from a range of disciplines along with government and public health officials to develop solutions for U.S. cities around issues of energy, infrastructure, food systems, urban planning, public safety and community health and wellness.
“The Smart and Connected Communities program uniquely brings together researchers across a wide range of academic disciplines to closely collaborate with diverse stakeholders in local cities and communities,” said Jim Kurose, NSF assistant director for Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE). “The collaborative research undertaken by these groups will address challenges faced by our cities and communities, helping to transform communities and improve people’s lives.”
The impacts of heat and cold are distributed unevenly in urban areas as a result of variability in infrastructure and social factors that influence risk.
“We spend about 90 percent of our time indoors. If you’re in a house that has very little insulation, you can have an environment that’s actually hotter than it is outside on a hot day and colder than it is outside on a cold day,” says UB’s Rajkovich, PhD, who is also an assistant professor of architecture. “That can exacerbate pre-existing medical conditions.”
And, he adds, there are other precipitating factors connected to thermal extremes. “For example, on high heat days you tend to have more ozone and smog, so respiratory issues increase. All of those things are intertwined, and temperature, in a lot of ways, is a driver for it.”
Improving coordination among multiple urban and municipal stakeholders — from public works departments to emergency management teams and health officials — can minimize the adverse effects of heat and cold, reducing weather-related deaths. That’s why involving governmental partners in each city, along with a cross-section of researchers from several different disciplines is critical, Rajkovich said. “There isn’t just one solution to making systems more resilient,” he said.
The UB-ASU-Temple project aims to create a linked approach that integrates social and technological infrastructure in cities to better manage thermal extremes. Through a series of workshops in Tempe and Buffalo, researchers will learn more about how practitioners in each city manage extreme weather.
Then, they will work with community partners in Tempe and Buffalo to pilot an assessment of thermal extremes management in both cities that focuses on energy, transportation and infrastructure planning, emergency management and public health, among other issues. This will lay the framework for a survey that can be used by municipalities around the country.
“By talking with researchers from other disciplines and our community partners as part of the workshops, we hope to identify opportunities that haven’t been previously identified just because of having conversations across sectors like environmental planning and energy planning,” Hamstead said.
The team’s research takes on greater significance as climate change continues to impact cities around the U.S. in different ways. This past summer, a heat wave grounded planes at the airport in Phoenix because it was too hot to fly safely. Climate change can also bring about extreme weather on the frigid end, as northern cities like Buffalo have experienced in recent winters due to the shifting polar vortex.
There are also concerns about weather extremes in cities that aren’t accustomed to abnormal weather patterns. “Research is showing that higher latitude cities have higher heat related mortality rates per capita, while southern cities have higher cold related mortality rates per capita,” Hamstead said.