Charting ABQ's urban heat islands - Albuquerque Journal

Charting ABQ’s urban heat islands

Maggie Fitzgerald who is a liaison with the city’s environmental health department attaches a sensor on her vehicle to record temperatures throughout parts of the city. This is a way to map out the hottest parts of the city as a way to protect the most vulnerable residents. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal.)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

As summers in the city get hotter and hotter officials say heat waves will hit some residents – youngsters, elderly people and those who don’t have homes, for instance – harder than others.

“In Albuquerque heat and drought are going to be the primary concerns,” said Kelsey Rader, the city’s sustainability officer. “Specifically with heat we’re understanding that in the long term we’re locked into a trajectory where we’re going to see hotter summers, longer summer heat waves.”

So on Friday, as temperatures topped 100 degrees, a little more than 50 volunteers signed up to traverse the city with heat sensors attached to their cars and bikes. The crew was divided into three shifts – morning, afternoon and evening – and took 15 routes by car and three routes by bike as part of an urban heat island mapping campaign.

The Journal accompanied a city employee on one of the routes through Northeast Albuquerque and the foothills neighborhoods.

For about 20 miles Maggie Fitzgerald, community liaison for the Environmental Health Department, meandered around the city with a heat sensor mounted with a PVC pipe to her car window doing what she called “citizen science.”

The hourlong route skirted deserted strip malls on Eubank, wove through small neighborhood streets, past green, tree-lined parks and hugged the base of the Sandia Mountain foothills.

The results from the project should be available in about six to eight weeks, the city said.

Albuquerque is one of nine cities – including Atlanta; Charleston, South Carolina; Kansas City, Missouri; San Diego and others – participating in the project, which is supported by the National Integrated Heat Health Information System and Climate Adaptation Planning and Analytics Strategies.

Rader said the goal is to get a “more granular level of understanding” of which bus routes, cycling routes, streets and sidewalks across the city are the hottest. Then the city can use that information to decide where to put in “cool pavement pilot projects,” increase the tree canopy, and erect covered bus shelters and cooling stations.

“It really is to help paint a picture for lawmakers, decision makers, and the public to understand that not all areas in the city are equally impacted by heat,” Rader said. “There are priority areas that we can be focusing on in the next couple of years and make a priority for the budget as well to make sure that we’re addressing.”

Enrique Cardiel, executive director of the Health Equity Council, said extreme heat tends to hit the unhoused community and low-income residents who may not have access to air conditioning in their home the hardest.

For instance, he said, he and a co-worker were going to lunch and saw the impact first hand. Cardiel said they saw someone who was overdosing and were able to reverse the overdose. But since the person had been unconscious for a while, the person had a serious sunburn.

“Even if you get a tent or can sit under a tree, you’re still going to deal with much more than those who have the privilege of working or living somewhere with AC,” he said.

Cardiel said the city is expecting an increase in unhoused people given the pandemic, so trying to mitigate the effects of heat is especially relevant now.

The state has already seen a dramatic rise in heat-related hospitalizations over the past decade. Brian Woods, an environmental public health epidemiologist with the New Mexico Department of Health, said they’ve seen heat related hospitalizations double statewide over the past 10 years. And, he said, they expect to see them double again in the next 10.

“So we hit about 300 cases a year in 2020 or 2019,” Woods said. “And we expect to hit 600 in 2030.”

He said the DOH on Friday received preliminary reports of three cases of complaints due to heat – mainly altered mental state, back pain and headache – and possibly one death. So far this summer the high point came one day in mid-June when there were eight reports of people hospitalized for heat in Albuquerque and Rio Rancho.

As for the effects of heat, the DOH is still in the nascent stages of studying it.

Stephanie Moraga-McHaley, program manager for the New Mexico Environmental Public Health Tracking Program, said from a 2019 study they know that most hospitalizations due to heat occurred in the southeastern part of the state. She said they are just beginning to study the effects of heat in the Albuquerque metro area.

Moraga-McHaley, Woods and other members of their team receive reports from hospitals when people show up in emergency departments with heat-related complaints. She said complaints can manifest as heat stroke, heat stress and severe sunburns. Heat stroke can affect a person’s brain and shut down their organs whereas heat stress can manifest as a heavy sweating and nausea. Severe sunburns can lead to infections.

In contrast to deaths caused by extreme low temperatures, heat-related deaths can be harder to recognize.

“When you die of heat related illness, it could look like other things,” Moraga-McHaley said. “It could be comorbidities … like heart disease or diabetic shock.”

She said the DOH is doing a lot to study health and climate change – including serving on the governor’s climate change task force and applying for additional funding to develop climate and health adaptation projects.

“We don’t have a lot of plans in place, especially for heat related illness,” Moraga-McHaley said. “We have plans for other types of disasters, but this is kind of new.”

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