News

Heatwaves bring PSU researchers to study hottest places in Northwest cities
Author: Laura Gleim, Institute for Sustainable Solutions
Posted: September 9, 2016
Portland heat island map

When heatwaves hit the Pacific Northwest, researchers from Portland State University hit the streets, driving around with highly sensitive thermometers mounted to their cars to collect real time information about the hottest places in cities.

Their goal? To identify “urban heat islands,” or areas that can run 10 to 20 degrees hotter than other areas of the city and can pose serious health risks to the people living and working there. 

Using interactive maps, the researchers overlay their location-specific heat data with information about demographics, air pollution, and local landscape features like roads, buildings, and trees—creating comprehensive tools that can help local governments pinpoint the most vulnerable areas of their cities and develop strategies for mitigating negative health impacts of extreme weather events.

PSU urban studies professor Vivek Shandas has worked for years to develop the mapping tool, partnering with Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability and using Portland as a “living laboratory” or pilot site. With the help of graduate student researcher Jackson Voelkel, Shandas is now expanding his study to other areas of the Pacific Northwest, including the Eugene, Tacoma, Seattle, and Surrey, B.C, metropolitan areas.

“With climate change, we expect summer heatwaves to become longer and more intense and frequent,” said Shandas, a fellow of PSU’s Institute for Sustainable Solutions. “By identifying characteristics of neighborhoods and households that are the most vulnerable, we can develop models to reduce the health impacts of intense heatwaves nationally.”

Urban heat islands have a two-fold effect on health. The heat poses risks of dehydration, especially for elderly, homeless, and low-income communities, but it also turns air pollution into smog, increasing potential complications for people with heart or lung conditions. 

Shandas and his team have found that areas with high concentrations of asphalt, large buildings, and train tracks tend to run hotter, while areas with more tree canopy and greenery tend to run cooler. 

“This research is key to our climate resilience policy and planning work,” said Michele Crim, climate policy and planning manager for Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. “It enables city staff to identify the specific hot spots in Portland where we need to prioritize investments and programs to serve Portlanders that are most vulnerable to heat events.” 

Strategies for reducing deadly impacts of heatwaves range from opening more public air-conditioned spaces to strategically removing pavement, adding trees, and varying the heights of buildings to increase natural airflow.

Learn more and see the interactive urban heat island maps at www.climatecope.org.

Urban heat island map of Eugene, Oregon, showing hotspots recorded during a heatwave in August 2016.