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In Richmond - and Virginia - a heat-mapping effort seeks to mitigate effects of climate change
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In Richmond - and Virginia - a heat-mapping effort seeks to mitigate effects of climate change

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After hooking up his equipment onto the passenger’s side windows, Jeremy Hoffman is ready to venture out into one of the hottest days of the summer. Going through an exact route each time, he is driving across Richmond at three separate times of day.

This is part of a statewide heat-mapping effort called “Heat Watch,” led by the Virginia Foundation for Independent Colleges, to better understand the disparities extreme heat has on communities across the state.

As Hoffman, the David & Jane Cohn scientist at the Science Museum of Virginia, made his way through the city on Thursday, three sensors were picking up surface temperature, air quality and particulate matter, which reports the amount of particles in the air.

Driving from Carytown to Maymont and straight through downtown, Hoffman was mapping out and assessing urban heat islands — metropolitan areas that are hotter than surrounding rural areas.

This year’s project builds on another heat-mapping project Hoffman started in Richmond in 2017. The findings in that assessment overlapped with socioeconomic patterns found in other studies: The hottest parts of the city tend to be low-income areas, Hoffman’s 2017 study showed.

He also found some historic ties. Some of the hottest areas were historically redlined — a discriminatory policy of systemically denying loans or insurances — which negatively affected predominantly low-income communities of color.

Climate change is making heat waves more extreme and more frequent, according to a report from Climate Central, an organization dedicated to research on climate science. Extreme heat can be deadly, leading to increases of heat-related illness and threats in hotter neighborhoods.

“Heat Watch” volunteers first went out into the city at 6 a.m. Thursday, the time of day when temperatures are usually coolest and then at 3 p.m., the warmest part of the day.

“That way, we’re able to compare not only how different things are at those two time periods, but how much they’ve changed from the morning to the afternoon,” Hoffman said.

At his last outing at 7 p.m. — when heat absorbed by the ground surface escapes back into the air — Hoffman hopped into the car to collect data one last time.

Volunteers went through Richmond on 12 routes, each on various types of land uses and tree canopies in order to get a complete coverage of the city.

Driving along the route, Hoffman took notice of what areas lack green spaces and what areas have plenty as the sensors collect the various data.

Areas on Hoffman’s route with plenty of tree coverage, such as Pump House Park and nearby Maymont, are like natural air conditioners for the areas; “it virtually stays completely cool all day,” he said.

But there was a drastic variation in the percentage of tree coverage as Hoffman drove from a tree-lined Museum District into a tree-sparse Carytown.

In a preliminary assessment two weeks ago, Hoffman’s findings show Carytown to be the hottest neighborhood along his route, reaching 100 degrees.

Not only are large percentages of hard, dark surfaces, such as asphalt and concrete, contributing to the level of heat intensity of urban heat islands, but the heights of buildings can, too.

“Usually when you have all one-height buildings, that can trap more warmer air near the surface,” Hoffman said.

Taking place four years after the 2017 heat assessment project, “Heat Watch” will analyze what changes have occurred in those years, including additions of green spaces.

But the investments of green spaces or parks can initiate gentrification, Hoffman said, which can be seen in Manchester and parts of Church Hill. The heat-mapping project will take that into account as scientists analyze shifts in patterns from the data.

The heat-mapping project not only helps the city take actions to mitigate extreme heat but also presents an opportunity for many to learn about the heat crisis.

Many small tree-planting initiatives grew out from his 2017 findings, and several Richmond Public Schools teachers incorporated his 2017 findings into their curricula, Hoffman said.

The data collected from the “Heat Watch’’ project will be used for future research and will help inform initiatives about future planning to help mitigate the effects of extreme heat in the most vulnerable areas through such measures as increasing tree coverage or installing cooling centers. Data will be ready this fall.

The project is a community initiative and collaboration, Hoffman said, as it allows the local community, especially those most vulnerable, to partake in the research and in the processes afterward.

“Those affected first and worst should be centered in the creation of policy implementation plans that fit their voice and vision,” he said.

RVAgreen 2050 is Richmond’s equity-centered climate plan initiative led by the Richmond Office of Sustainability. Through its initiative, it is trying to forefront communities most directly affected by climate change as it works to mitigate climate change’s impacts.

Other cities that participated in “Heat Watch” were Abingdon, Arlington, Farmville, Harrisonburg, Lynchburg, Petersburg, Salem, Virginia Beach and Winchester.

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