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Oregon Counties Take on Heat Mapping to Keep Residents Safe

As climate change has brought on an increase in heat waves, a growing number of residents across the state have been affected by heat-related illness and death.

The sun was coming up at 6 a.m. when J’reyesha Brannon and her partner Jonathan Wilson climbed into their car to drive a loop through the Mt. Tabor, Gateway and Lents neighborhoods in Southeast and Northeast Portland, Ore.

They were not out sightseeing or searching for good coffee. Affixed to their car’s passenger side window, a long tube topped with a honeycomb sensor was recording the temperature, relative humidity, elevation, GPS coordinates and the car’s speed at 1 second intervals for an hour. They would drive the same exact route again in the afternoon and evening.

Brannon and Wilson volunteered as part of an army of citizen scientists in a massive undertaking: a neighborhood-by-neighborhood heat mapping project spanning Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties that will identify the region’s heat islands, the hottest areas that experience the most harmful health effects of rising temperatures.

The data will help inform local cooling solutions in the most affected neighborhoods and policies to deal with extreme heat — an emerging public health threat in the Portland region and across the world.

“It’s going to be one of the most comprehensive heat campaigns in the country,” said Vivek Shandas, a professor in the geography department at Portland State University who spearheaded the heat mapping research and is an advisor on the campaign. “I think the region will be better equipped to deal with extreme heat in the future.”

Heat Mapping Campaigns

In recent years, climate change has brought severe heat waves, leading to an increase in heat-related deaths and illnesses in Oregon. Extreme heat now kills more Americans than any other weather event.

The heat mapping campaign comes on the heels of Multnomah County filing a lawsuit against fossil fuel corporations over the deadly 2021 heat dome. In the lawsuit, the county says it has already spent millions of dollars establishing emergency cooling centers, supplying air conditioning units to residents and responding to heat-related illnesses – and it will spend billions more to prepare for severe public health emergencies related to extreme heat in the future.

Heat waves are especially dangerous to already-vulnerable communities, including seniors, low-income people, people with disabilities and communities of color, public health officials say.

“As heat waves increase in frequency, duration and magnitude, we know our Black, Indigenous and people of color neighbors will be disproportionately burdened by climate change,” said Kathleen Johnson, senior environmental health coordinator in Washington County. “Engaging with a variety of stakeholders through collaborative science efforts to find the most effective solutions will help connect those communities with proactive actions.”

Heat doesn’t impact everyone equally because temperatures vary by neighborhood or even by city block, said Shandas, as specific types of buildings and large swaths of pavement can raise temperatures and limit night-time cooling. Temperatures can be as much as 10 to 15 degrees higher on one city block than another, he said.

This is largely caused by discriminatory planning and zoning policies, which have created – and continue to create – the so-called urban heat island effect — areas where temperatures are much higher than average.

In the past, local governments relied on satellite remote sensing to monitor and map land surface temperature and estimate community risk, but thermal mapping can be imprecise. So a decade ago, Shandas started to record ground-level temperature and humidity data using sensors mounted to bikes and vehicles to get more accurate, neighborhood-based readings. He has since refined the methods and founded CAPA Strategies LLC, a Portland-based climate consulting firm that partners with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ( NOAA) to map heat islands around the U.S. and the world.

The Portland region’s heat mapping campaign is one of 18 NOAA-funded community campaigns taking place this summer in 14 states and in Santiago, Chile. Over the past six years, the federal agency has supported at least 70 similar heat mapping projects led by CAPA Strategies.

Driving The Route

On Saturday, more than 100 volunteers fanned out to gather the data on 41 routes in Portland, Gresham, Canby, Sandy, Forest Grove, Molalla and other populated areas in the three counties. Each team of volunteers drove the routes three times during the day, at 6 a.m., 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. The routes were chosen to reflect diverse land uses, including a variety of tree covers, building types and pavement in neighborhoods.

Brannon and Wilson started their route in the leafy Mt. Tabor neighborhood, driving past majestic trees and large homes. Then they veered through Montavilla to 82nd Avenue and the Gateway district, where strip malls, apartment buildings and car lots dominate and trees are sparse. Then they steered down Foster Road and circled through Lents — a neighborhood that already has been identified as a heat island — and back through Woodstock to leafy Mt. Tabor.

Data gathered by the sensors won’t be available until later this fall, but it was clear the neighborhoods Brannon and Wilson passed through had vastly different environments that could significantly impact the temperatures.

Brannon volunteered for the heat mapping campaign because extreme heat and environmental justice are personal to her, she said. She’s African American and her family lives in Parkrose, a low-income, diverse neighborhood the city of Portland has previously identified as at risk for extreme temperatures.

“I didn’t grow up with air conditioning and I’ve seen how much heat has impacted my family,” Brannon said. “Last summer, my dad made an air conditioner out of a styrofoam cooler, ice and a box fan because it was hard to find an AC when we finally realized that we needed it. Everybody was searching for one at the time. And we don’t have many trees in my neighborhood, so I knew it was hotter.”

She hopes the data can pinpoint where resources are needed the most so that residents — including her family — can better prepare for heat waves and the city and county can open more neighborhood cooling centers.

Brannon, who works as an engineer for the city of Portland, has volunteered for years to address environmental justice challenges in Portland. As a fellow with the Harvard Climate Justice Design Fellowship program, she gathered stories to illustrate how extreme heat impacts communities of color in Multnomah County, pairing them with existing county data on temperature and tree canopies.

Her project, Canopy of Stories, highlights some of the ways communities have struggle with extreme heat. Multnomah County plans to expand on the story gathering to inform the heat data it gathers as part of the mapping campaign, she said, to better understand the barriers people face when it comes to protecting themselves from extreme heat.

To Wilson, Brannon’s partner and navigator, the biggest appeal of the heat mapping project is that it will build concrete evidence through data to help shift local policies.

“It was the realization that climate change isn’t going anywhere anytime soon and if we aren’t doing anything to help our own local communities, then I don’t think we are really doing anything at all,” said Wilson, an engineer for Portland General Electric.

Assessing Heat Risks

In addition to creating detailed heat index maps for the tri-county region, the temperature data will be combined with other data to create a heat risk assessment tool. This will include data on the type and age of buildings, data on the tree canopy and data from a model developed by Portland General Electric that estimates the likelihood of AC units being present in a home.

Shandas said the analysis will help pinpoint where interventions are most needed to protect people at greater risk.

Combining the data will allow the three counties to develop statistical models on risks communities face from extreme heat. That’s key because it’s not just high temperatures that can lead to more risk of heat illness or death, Shandas said.

“I can say the outdoor temperature in this neighborhood is hot, but I can’t really say that’s necessarily going to be a risk for that community because residents there may all have brand new functioning ACs that are running 24/7,” he said.

Researchers will also look at the policies in the region to understand whether any of them are negatively affecting residents’ ability to protect themselves from heat, Shandas said.

Ultimately, the data will be added to Multnomah County’s Heat Vulnerability Index, an interactive tool that displays how heat vulnerability, sensitivity, exposure and various populations’ ability to adapt to extreme heat differ throughout the area. The new data from the heat mapping campaign will be used to re-calculate the “exposure” score of the heat index.

The tool will be used to inform policies in land use planning, transportation, public housing and tree planting, officials said.

©2023 Advance Local Media LLC. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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