Richmond Urban Heat Island Study Highlights Hot Spots, Addresses Health Risk

The Richmond Urban Heat Island Study will receive a Smart 50 Award on April 1 of this year. In order to share more about their incredible work, Managing Editor Laura Benold spoke with Virginia Commonwealth University Associate Professor Stephen Fong. Check it out:

LB: Tell me about the project and how you got the idea to undertake resource allocation during heat waves.

SF: The Urban Heat Island Study in Richmond was truly a collaborative effort with the idea developing through multiple inputs.  Dr. Jeremy Hoffman at the Science Museum of Virginia is a climate scientist by training and suggested the project as something that could not only provide information about Richmond but also serve as a way to build a consortium of entities to address local sustainability issues.  After agreeing on the project, we started to consolidate all of the resources (equipment, personnel, expertise) that were needed to conduct the study.

LB: You might expect to see this in Miami or San Antonio. Why is this important in the City of Richmond?

SF: Richmond actually serves as a great local for doing a study like this as the climate is not always hot and humid, and thus, there is a possibility that intermittent periods of elevated temperature may actually have a significant short-term impact as people may not be as practiced at being cautious of heat-related illnesses.  The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has guidelines that show a moderate risk of heat-related illness when the heat index is between 91-103 degrees F with a high risk between 104-115 degrees F.  Projects of climate for Richmond predict that by 2040, there may be 40 more days each year that are above 95 degrees F and thus more days where individuals could be at risk for health risks.  This all means that at a high-level Richmond is likely to increasingly be affected by high temperatures that could directly affect health.  The aspect that we didn’t know was if this heat effect would be uniform across the city or if there were specific areas that would be disproportionately affected by high temperatures.

LB: You worked with the City of Richmond directly. What was that experience like, and how did you find the right person within the city to champion the project with you?

SF: One of the great things about Richmond is that the community is close-knit enough that if you work in a certain area it isn’t too difficult to get in touch with others in the same area.  It’s almost like playing the “six degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon” game but in Richmond it’s typically more like one or two degrees of separation.  It’s been truly great having the support of the City of Richmond and working with Alicia Zatcoff, City of Richmond Sustainability Manager.  Having the personnel from the city involved gives the entire effort additional significance as the outcomes of the study can be directly integrated into action by the city, both short-term in terms of resource and mitigation efforts and long-term for city planning.

LB: Of which results are you most proud, and why?

SF: Most people are surprised by the large amount of temperature variation across the city (16 degrees F), so that’s been a great finding to grab people’s attention; but I think the most significant result was finding a correlation between the elevated occurrence of heat-related illness in neighborhoods that have elevated temperature. Instead of being an interesting fact or observation, this study has direct ties to something that is impacting the quality of life for individuals.

LB: What do you hope other cities can learn from the work you did?

SF: The idea that the surface temperatures we experience varies base upon our immediate environment is intuitive, but the actual variation (especially in cities) can be significant enough to place people in specific areas at higher risk of heat-related illness. This is particularly important for individuals who may not have the capacity to easily counteract elevated heat (e.g. may not have air conditioning).  This is also a warning for areas that may consider themselves to have milder climates since global increases in temperatures will produce an increase in the number of days above 90 degrees F even in cities that have traditionally had mild summer temperatures.

LB: What does it mean to you to win a Smart 50 Award?

SF: The recognition for this project was great as it provided a broader venue for us to share the results of the study with the hope that additional municipalities will be made aware of the tangible health impacts of local hot spots.