A map showing heat distribution in and around Boston with yellow representing cooler areas and darker shades of orange representing hotter areas
The northeastern United States, including Boston, is one of the fastest warming regions in the country. Credit: Museum of Science, Boston and the Helmuth Lab at Northeastern University; Traverse Points and Landsat Model Raster Data by CAPA Strategies
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While driving through some cities, like Roger Renteria’s hometown of El Paso, Texas, it’s obvious that some streets are shaded from heat while others bake in the Sun. “In certain neighborhoods, you notice that they have areas that have a lot more trees, a lot more shade—places where you can seek refuge from the heat,” said Renteria, a doctoral student studying sociology at the University of Utah.

Oftentimes, there is a history behind a neighborhood’s structure and design and, by extension, residents’ risk of high heat exposure. Communities historically segregated by race frequently became the sites of major roadways and large buildings made from heat-absorbing materials such as asphalt and concrete, leading some neighborhoods to be hotter than others. “These were places where immigrants, people of color, Indigenous communities would often be forced to live,” said Vivek Shandas, a professor of climate adaptation at Portland State University.

A common finding in the literature so far is that hotter neighborhoods tend to be home to low-income residents and people of color. Studies have attempted to provide a detailed understanding of areas’ differences in heat exposure, but higher-resolution data are still necessary to better understand heat disparities at the neighborhood level, especially within the northeastern United States, which is one of the fastest warming regions in the country.

In a new study published in Environmental Research, Renteria and his colleagues paired demographics data with land surface temperature data from the summers of 2013–2017, and they asked whether diversity, young children, socioeconomic status, and personal car ownership within a neighborhood were associated with hotter conditions.

Thermal Privileges

Renteria and his colleagues looked at average summer land surface temperatures from 2013 to 2017 as well as sociodemographic characteristics in urban, suburban, and rural neighborhoods in nine northeastern states: Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and the New England states. They paired neighborhood-scale temperature data from the U.S. Geological Survey and demographic information for each census tract (or neighborhood) from the 2017 American Community Survey.

In line with past work, the researchers found that in urban neighborhoods, an increase in the proportion of Latinx, Black, or Asian residents was associated with a bump in land surface temperature. Hotter neighborhoods were also associated with lower median household income and had higher proportions of children younger than 5, a population vulnerable to health impacts of heat.

The researchers also found that generally, racially diverse communities experienced higher temperatures than more homogenous ones. But neighborhoods with higher proportions of white people experienced “thermal privileges not enjoyed within more segregated Latinx and Black neighborhoods,” said the authors in their study. “We found that indeed diversity does not operate the same way for all racial and ethnic groups,” said Sara Grineski, a coauthor and codirector of the Center for Natural and Technological Hazards at the University of Utah.

In addition, the researchers also looked for connections between personal vehicle ownership and higher neighborhood temperatures, which is a relatively novel association that most studies don’t analyze. Those who lived in hotter neighborhoods had low rates of vehicle ownership, meaning that if they didn’t have air-conditioning in their homes already, those residents didn’t have air-conditioned cars with which to escape to cooler places or green areas.

Actionable Data

The authors provide climate justice and environmental groups with more targets to help their communities. For example, the association between high temperatures and vehicle ownership provides actionable data.

“In terms of a hazard that we’re going to have to deal with as we move through the 21st century…heat is going to be an extremely important one.”

“That is something that we say anecdotally, but seeing it come out through the data was really helpful because that’s something that we can think about and try to incorporate into some of our solutions,” said Melanie Gárate, climate resilience manager at the Mystic River Watershed Association in Boston, who was not involved in the research.

Yet there is still challenging work to accomplish; Gárate said that in New England and the broader Northeast, public awareness of how to prepare for extreme heat remains low.

“It’s one of those hazards that unless you actually feel it, you don’t necessarily think about it,” said Renteria. “In terms of a hazard that we’re going to have to deal with as we move through the 21st century, I think heat is going to be an extremely important one given the rippling effects that it can have on communities around the world.”

—Jackie Rocheleau (@JackieRocheleau), Science Writer

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Citation: Rocheleau, J. (2021), Neighborhoods are feeling the heat of climate change, Eos, 102, https://doi.org/10.1029/2021EO210575. Published on 29 October 2021.
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