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Gwynne Ann Unruh is an award-winning reporter formerly of the Alamosa Valley Courier, an independent paper in southern Colorado. She covers the environment for The Paper.

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As many as 90 community “street scientist” volunteers are needed to help with the 2021 Albuquerque Heat Mapping Study, which is intended to help the city understand where it needs to focus its climate mitigation efforts. Using specially designed thermal sensors, the street scientists will drive arranged routes to record ambient temperatures and humidity during a day in July. The data collected will help the city identify where it needs to protect vulnerable neighborhoods from extreme heat risk right now and into the future.

The urban heat island mapping campaign this summer is a partnership with the National Integrated Heat Health Information System and the City of Albuquerque. It’s designed to increase the city’s momentum for climate adaptation. The coordinated data collection study will empower city planners and increase their ability to address climate change, plan for the future and make informed decisions for the city, its communities, infrastructure and businesses.

In July, on one of the hottest days of the year, during one of the hottest months of the year, the street scientists will be collecting data across the city. Volunteers will collect data on a day when the daily high temperature is expected to be within the top 10 percent of annual averages. Heat sensors will be mounted on volunteers’ cars, and they will crisscross neighborhoods during morning, afternoon and evening. Every second they are moving, sensors will be recording the location, temperature, humidity and time.

“We heard our residents in the Climate Action planning process and know that urban heat is a real threat,” Mayor Tim Keller said. “This data will serve as a guiding light to address heat inequities in our most vulnerable neighborhoods.” The urban heat island mapping system is intended to engage the community and support their understanding of the need for local actions to protect their communities and their environment for an uncertain climate future. The study is projected to raise awareness among volunteers and residents about heat risk, engage communities in pursuing solutions for the changing climate and incorporate local perspectives to produce the online heat maps.

When the high-resolution mapping of Albuquerque’s urban hot spots is completed, an online story map will enable quick access to CAPA Heat Watch Data and Maps for the city. CAPA Strategies believes, “Our planetary climate is a direct result of racially motivated policies that extract from communities and position profits over people and that racially motivated policies and programs have disproportionately burdened Black, Indigenous, immigrant and other communities of color.” CAPA says it’s building a grassroots movement that is rooted in equity and justice. 

Communities around the world are facing unprecedented challenges of how to prepare locally for a very dysfunctional global climate system. Climate-induced extreme weather events have created the need for tactics that identify and target communities and infrastructure which are facing the greatest threat from the intense effects of temperature and humidity (heat index) heat. The comfort and safety of our neighborhoods are affected by the pavement, roadways, buildings and shade trees, as all have an effect on a city’s temperature. According to Climate Central and an independent organization of scientists and journalists, summer (June, July and August) temperature data from 1970 to 2020 were obtained from the Applied Climate Information System. That data showed the Albuquerque/Santa Fe area temperature rose by an average of 2.5 degrees during that time period.

The heat mapping can serve as a cornerstone to build solutions and legitimacy leading to local action plans to prepare the city, socially and physically, for the increasing risk of exposure to extreme heat. These high-resolution maps can be used in urban planning for heat-conscious design as the city considers future development and infrastructure changes, as well as a way to monitor the impact of such changes over time.

Urban heat is an issue of safety and equity, as the environments we build around us affect the temperature of everything near us. Heat-related illness kills more people than all other natural disasters across the United States and yet is highly preventable. Identifying potential health vulnerability locations increases the city’s ability to create effective interventions during a heatwave, thus helping to save lives. Being able to visualize the hottest places in Albuquerque helps to identify the opportunities for cooling extreme heat with urban greening and tree canopies. 

Green infrastructure provides significant, long-term benefits for heat mitigation, and by visualizing the hottest places in your region, diverse stakeholders can work together to identify the opportunities for cooling extreme heat. In effect, these actions can improve the health and well-being of communities. The final heat map data will serve as a resource for the public to identify the extreme temperature regions in the city and address the communities most vulnerable to extreme heat.

Albuquerque’s street scientist heat mapping driving teams’ total volunteer time is estimated to clock in at five hours, and they are required to attend a 45-minute training session on how to use the data-collection tools. Volunteers will travel set routes in the morning, afternoon and evening on the same day. Drivers will also need to recruit at least one co-pilot who can provide directions and navigation to them during the heat study

The city needs to insure drivers while they are driving (which requires a City Operator’s Permit). Volunteers will need to take the city’s defensive driving course, undergo a background check and have a valid driver’s license. They can watch the training video online and complete the knowledge check or attend a training session in person. For the day-of study, drive the course assigned to you and return to city hall after the end of the data collection period.

The study must have good weather for the event. Currently, the city is projecting July 9 for the data collection date. However, this date should be considered tentative, in case of rainfall or other non-ideal weather conditions that may exist on that day. Shifts will be scheduled on July 9 for the volunteers who are interested. If the weather is good, all of the needed data will be collected on this date. The scheduled backup date is July 10.

Volunteers can learn more information about the Albuquerque Heat Mapping Study and sign up as a volunteer at oneabqvolunteers.com.

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