Heat Islands

Scientists Search for Heat Islands in Virginia, Collect Data to Combat Climate Change

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A team of Arlington, Virginia, scientists and volunteers went to work before sunrise Thursday, collecting data on heat islands to better understand where people are most at risk during extreme heat waves. 

The group drove five routes around Arlington collecting data on ground level air temperatures and humidity of heat islands, or urbanized areas that experience higher temperatures, using a thermal sensor attached to a car. 

Daytime temperatures in heat islands can be 1 to 7 degrees hotter than more rural areas; in Norfolk, temperatures reach 15 degrees hotter than their rural counterparts. 

“The concrete and the asphalt absorb the heat during the day and slowly release it back into the atmosphere so they maintain that high temperature,” said Susan Agolini, assistant professor of biology at Marymount University. “Other areas that are green can dissipate that heat more easily.”

During a heatwave, heat islands can have an adverse impact on energy resources, the economy and human health — especially in minority communities.

“It really gets to a matter of social justice because different areas are going to have different heat, and that impacts people’s health,” Agolini said.

With volunteer John Coggin riding in the passenger seat, Agolini drove throughout Arlington, taking measurements that will become critical data Virginia officials will need to combat climate change.

“After the data is collected, how do we work with public health agencies?” asked Coggin, who works with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Climate Program Office. “How do we work with first responders and make sure these hotter neighborhoods are being served adequately?”

Marymount University and 11 other institutions within the Virginia Foundation for Independent Colleges are conducting the mapping project with help from Climate Adaption Planning Analytics Strategies, the Science Museum of Virginia and the Virginia Department of Forestry.

More than 80% of Americans live in cities, which is why the NOAA is conducting community-led heat mapping campaigns across the country. For Agolini, getting the community involved is a crucial part of the project. It puts climate change evidence directly in the hands of the public.

“I think people are taking ownership of this, and they really feel like it’s something really important in their lives and to the lives of the community,” Agolini said.

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