Over this year’s long hot summer, the City of Albuquerque and NASA’s DEVELOP team worked together to further the City’s understanding of the Urban Heat Island Effect and how implementing cooling interventions such as tree plantings can help ease some of the impacts of extreme heat on our most vulnerable communities.

Over 90 community “street scientist” volunteers were used to help with the 2021 Albuquerque Heat Mapping Study, which was intended to help the city understand where it needs to focus its climate mitigation efforts. Using specially designed thermal sensors, the street scientists drove arranged routes to record ambient temperatures and humidity in July 2021. The data collected helped the city identify where it needs to protect vulnerable neighborhoods from extreme heat right now and into the future.

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

The analysis overlays social vulnerability data, targeting immediate heat mitigation to the city’s frontline communities rather than focusing just on modeling heat mitigation in the hottest areas. Results of the analysis show that Albuquerque’s distinct geographies make the Urban Heat Island (UHI) of the city unique.

The Heat Mapping Study collected temperatures from 67,662 temperature hot spots around the city. The campaign intent was to mitigate urban hot spots and reduce heat disparities in lower-income communities that have been traditionally neglected by previous tree-planting efforts.

“This new research will be used as yet another tool to improve our ability to make data-driven management decisions as we constantly strive to be better stewards of our urban tree canopy,” said City Forester Sean O’Neill. “Increasing tree plantings is essential for heat mitigation and advancement across the entire city will take consistent community-wide effort.”

The NASA DEVELOP Albuquerque Urban Development team used the InVest Urban Cooling Model and NASA Earth observations to understand the spatial distribution of UHIs within Albuquerque. This allowed the team to model the outcomes of tree canopy interventions, in coordination with the City’s 100,000 tree planting goal as part of the Let’s Plant Albuquerque Alliance. The outputs from the model detailed temperature decrease and regulation that would result from an increased urban canopy.

The project builds off the 2020 CAPA Heat Watch Campaign and raises awareness among residents about heat risk, incorporates local perspectives, further develops the City’s heat maps, and pursues solutions toward climate resiliency. Complete results from the project can be found at cabq.gov/sustainability/sustainability-resources

“We’re addressing our front line community’s health and safety concerns to strategically increase shade and tree canopy and improve Albuquerque’s heat resiliency,” Sustainability Officer, Kelsey Rader said. “As we outlined in the 2021 Climate Action Plan, the time is now to take bold measures to protect our most vulnerable citizens from the impacts of rising heat and climate change.”

Gwynne Ann Unruh is an award-winning reporter formerly of the Alamosa Valley Courier, an independent paper in southern Colorado, and other publications. She has taught and  practiced alternative healing methods for over thirty-five years.