Temperatures can soar well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit in North Carolina during summer months and climb higher in urban areas. (Adobe Stock)

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By Nadia Ramlagan, Public News Service – NC

March 25, 2021

RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina scientists and residents are teaming up this summer to better understand which neighborhoods in the Raleigh-Durham area are the hottest so-called urban heat islands.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, heat kills more people in the U.S. than any other weather-related phenomenon, and the combination of heat and humidity can cause heat exhaustion and stroke.

Max Cawley, program manager for Public Engagement with Science at the Museum of Life and Science in Durham, explained miles of pavement, asphalt and concrete create a health risk, which is expected to worsen in the coming decade.

“We believe based off of what we’ve seen assessing a lot of other mapping projects, that Black and Brown communities, and poor communities in particular, are likely much more vulnerable to heat events,” Cawley stated. “But again, that’s something that we’re specifically going to get some data on through a project like this.”

He noted people with asthma and other chronic diseases, and people living in poverty who can’t pay for continual indoor cooling, are at greatest risk from living in urban heat islands.

Cawley expects the community science initiative to begin in June or July, and will outline the project at this year’s NC BREATHE Conference, being held virtually April 6 and 7.

Kathie Dello, director of the North Carolina State Climate Office at North Carolina State University, pointed out inner cities and rural areas can experience up to ten- to fifteen-degree temperature differences.

“Think about when you’re wearing a black T-shirt on a hot day versus a white T-shirt; you get much hotter with the black T-shirt,” Dello remarked. “In cities we have roads, we have buildings, we have much more of these darker surfaces that trap and emit heat out, so it really can heat up the area.”

She added as communities think about moving people out of harm’s way or adapting to prolonged periods of extreme heat, local officials and public health departments first have to understand where to direct resources.

“Where are the neighborhoods that need the most help? Is it cooling shelters? Is it tree planting? Is it park access to help cool down the neighborhood?” Dello asked. “We’re trying to figure out where truly the literal hot spots are.”

According to state data, more than 3,600 residents landed in hospital emergency rooms for heat-related illness in 2019.