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New York City's poor targeted by silent killer: heat

Source: The Earth Institute, Columbia University - Thu, 22 Aug 2013 02:53 PM
Author: Andrew Kruczkiewicz
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Children cool off under an open fire hydrant in New York City. PHOTO/Nadav Gazit
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Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - In the East New York neighborhood of New York City’s Brooklyn, a new danger is poised to increase stress on the area’s disadvantaged population. That threat - nothing to do with the well-publicized problems of drugs, gangs or guns - is heat stroke, experts say.

“When it’s hot out, it gets really busy in here,” said Alexandra Grainger, an emergency room nurse at New York Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan, whose service area includes the low-income neighborhoods of East Harlem and Roosevelt Island, as well as Yorkville which has many older people.

“It’s sad because most of the people are either elderly and don't know how to deal with the heat, or are less fortunate and cannot afford an air conditioner. It's a silent killer because the warning signs aren’t obvious and most don’t realize they are sick until it’s too late,” the nurse added.

That goes for the most vulnerable residents of Brooklyn, where housing projects abut liquor stores, and children play against a backdrop of boarded-up shops, overgrown lots and drug deals.

The unemployment rates in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of East New York and Brownsville are the highest in the city, standing at around 20 percent, and a little over half of residents receive some form of social support. In the summer, air conditioning for many is limited to an open fire hydrant.

“Research has shown that poverty-stricken areas in New York City see a greater increase in morbidity than other areas during a heat wave,” said Pat Kinney, a researcher with the Consortium for Climate Risk in the Urban Northeast (CCRUN), part of the Earth Institute at New York City’s Columbia University.

The 2006 heat wave in the Big Apple was responsible for upwards of 40 deaths, and was one of the deadliest on record, according to a study by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Counting the toll from heat waves is difficult as many illnesses are made worse by heat, which can then lead to death, but the deaths are often registered as being caused by the underlying health problem.

While hot weather may seem less important than other social and economic problems, a recent paper authored by CCRUN members shows that deaths from heat waves could soon increase by 20 percent in the borough of Manhattan alone.

The same study, published in the journal Nature, suggests that such an increase may translate into hundreds of avoidable deaths each year.

According to the NYC Department of Health report on the 2006 heat wave, most of the deaths occurred in areas with little resilience to sweltering weather. Those included housing projects without air conditioning and with high elderly populations, as well as areas of the city that experience an enhanced version of the urban heat island effect (UHI).

‘HEAT ISLAND POCKETS’

A heat island is generally a heavily developed urban area where temperatures are higher compared with less-densely populated, greener zones.

Traditionally, the UHI effect was thought to affect all of a city’s neighborhoods in a similar way. That is now being challenged by new evidence of “heat island pockets” inside cities.

Surprisingly, many of the hottest areas are not located in the downtown core, which are often home to the largest buildings and wealthier people who live and work there.

Research has shown that some of the areas producing a greater UHI effect in New York include the South Bronx, Hollis, Queens and Brownsville, Brooklyn. These neighborhoods also have the largest under-privileged populations.

According to CCRUN researchers, it is areas like these that will bear the brunt of the impact of a warming city, because UHI - although an independent process - will add to any underlying temperature rise caused by climate change.  

The UHI effect was around well before global temperatures started increasing in earnest.

British chemist and amateur meteorologist Luke Howard was one of the first to document a difference in temperature between the centre of London and the surrounding countryside. This research would later become one of the main topics of his pioneering 1833 work, “The Climate of London.”

By comparing temperatures at different sites outside the city to a single site in central London, Howard produced primitive maps depicting his findings of an “artificial elevation of temperature in London”.

Since then, scientists have come a long way in understanding the UHI effect. And taken together with the threat of more extreme heat waves linked to climate change, it is a phenomenon that could bring more serious consequences in the future.

The U.S. National Weather Service identifies heat as the most deadly natural hazard in the country, with a 10-year average of 117 deaths per year from 2003-2012, compared with 109 for tornadoes and 109 for hurricanes.

To create a more robust profile of heat-related risk, meteorologists have been redefining what it means to be hot. Instead of the actual temperature, they use a heat index to measure the health impact of heat.

The heat index, or “real feel temperature”, incorporates many other variables including humidity and dew point. The heat index can jump more than 5 degrees when the actual temperature changes by a single degree, meaning slight changes can make a big difference.

In a city as large and diverse as New York, one of the big challenges is figuring out how to protect the most vulnerable populations before the mercury rises. CCRUN scientists think the keys to this are more accurate risk assessment and better mapping.

Once the areas of increased risk can be identified, scientists use a process called downscaling in order to take global climate change forecasts and model the potential effects for specific neighborhoods.

GREEN IS COOL

In an attempt to mitigate the UHI effect, CCRUN is looking to the countryside for inspiration. One of the main reasons for the greater heating in cities is buildings. They absorb much more heat than trees, grass and farmland, which better reflect the sun. With this in mind, the CCRUN team is planting vegetation on roofs across the city to study the effect on temperature.

The New York State government is also recognizing the disproportionate effects of heat on health. The Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance is running a Cooling Assistance Program, which offers free air conditioners - albeit to only around 1,000 of the 60,000 people estimated to be most vulnerable to heat.  

A new Heat Warning System is also being enacted by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene which effectively addresses neighborhood differences, CCRUN’s Kinney said.

Previous systems have been made for a generalized audience and run by the centralized National Weather Service. But the new system plans to integrate local culture -  including language, knowledge and perceptions - to better target at-risk populations who may not be reached by wider public messages.

“If people knew they were at risk, resources can be properly allocated to reach out to them in their own neighborhoods before they get to the hospital,” ER nurse Grainger said.

CCRUN hopes such a system can emulate the success of recently upgraded hurricane and tornado warning systems, which have significantly reduced life and property loss by integrating physical and social science.

Although CCRUN’s domain covers the U.S. northeast megalopolis from Washington D.C to Boston, the team’s research may have lessons that are applicable to other urban environments around the globe.

Coming from a city that has a reputation for setting trends, the hope is that New York’s efforts will stimulate heat-vulnerability assessment at a more local scale across the world, helping to combat a silent but growing killer.

Andrew Kruczkiewicz is a graduate student in the Climate and Society Program at Columbia University's The Earth Institute. Linda Amato and Adeniyi Adejuwon helped to research this story.

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