Brian G. Henning
By Brian G. Henning
On June 29 of last year, the mercury in Spokane hit 109 degrees, an all-time high, and the average daily temperatures for the summer were 9.5 degrees higher than normal. But it was the “heat dome” in July that was deadly.
According to one estimate, nearly 800 deaths in the Northwest are likely attributable to the 2021 heat dome, killing 91 people across our state and at least 20 of our own neighbors here in Spokane. Think about that for a moment. Here, in the third decade of the 21st century in the richest nation in the world, 20 people in our community died because of extreme heat. Twenty. What are we doing about it?
Last summer, the city of Spokane opened cooling shelters (and clean air shelters) to help unhoused residents or those without air conditioning to escape the dangerous temperatures (or unhealthy air). These were important and reasonable steps to take in an emergency and the city should be applauded for its efforts. But are we now creating comprehensive, thoughtful short- and long-term plans so we are ready for the next extreme heat event?
Extreme heat refers to days with temperatures at or above 90 degrees and nights with temperatures at or above 68. On hot days and nights, people are at risk for heat-related illnesses, such as heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Extreme heat kills more Americans than any other weather event, but not everyone’s risk is the same. Some parts of the community are more vulnerable to extreme heat than others; this includes seniors, young children, pregnant women, people with certain health conditions, low-income communities, communities of color, people without access to air conditioning, and those who work outdoors on rooftops, roads and fields.
In Spokane, it is likely that temperatures are not uniform across neighborhoods. Areas with more tree cover, such as the neighborhoods of South Hill, are cooler than those in northeast Spokane, which have comparatively less tree cover. It is also likely that these neighborhoods with comparatively less tree cover have less built infrastructure for dealing with extreme heat, like air conditioning or easy access to green spaces. If we have another heat dome, will residents know where to go and what to do to survive?
Gonzaga University’s Center for Climate, Society, and the Environment was created to help our community understand and respond to the challenges of a changing climate. That is why we are launching a new effort called Spokane Beat the Heat as part of our larger Climate Resilience Project. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change describes climate resilience as the “capacity of social, economic and ecosystems to cope with a hazardous event or trend.”
The goal of the Spokane Beat the Heat program is to help our community understand and make plans to be resilient to the impacts of extreme summer heat. The first step is to collect accurate data on exactly what areas of Spokane are especially susceptible to extreme heat because of what are called urban heat islands.
On sunny days, dark building materials like concrete, asphalt and dark rooftops retain more heat from light, causing those surfaces and surrounding areas to be hotter. As a result, areas with more buildings and parking lots can be 20 degrees hotter than nearby neighborhoods due to the urban heat island effect. However, strategies like increasing green space, trees and using lighter-colored building materials can help cool down these heat islands. (Note that the urban heat island effect is made worse by climate change. It is not a cause of climate change.)
Thanks to a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Organization’s National Integrated Heat Health Information System, the Gonzaga Climate Center and our partners will be able to collect precise data to map Spokane’s urban heat islands. Spokane is among a diverse group of communities across the country doing this work with the help of NOAA, including Boulder, Colorado; Clark County, Nevada, which includes Las Vegas; Columbia, South Carolina; Columbus, Ohio; Jacksonville, Florida; Knoxville and Nashville, Tennessee; Milwaukee; Montgomery County, Maryland; Omaha, Nebraska; and Philadelphia.
One exciting feature of this urban heat island mapping campaign is that it is conducted via what is sometimes called citizen science. You and your friends can volunteer for one day this summer to help collect temperature data by mounting a sensor to your car window and traveling a specified route. Find more information, including how to support the work with your time or treasure, at www.gonzaga.edu/BeatTheHeat.
According to the National Weather Service, extreme heat is the deadliest weather hazard in the U.S., responsible for more deaths each year than cold, hurricanes, tornadoes and flooding (www.weather.gov/hazstat/). Extreme heat events are going to become increasingly common unless and until we transition away from climate-warming forms of energy and transportation such as coal, oil and gas. With thoughtful planning and collaboration, we can develop common-sense climate resilience plans; together, we can help Spokane beat the heat.
Brian G. Henning, Ph.D., is director of the Gonzaga Center for Climate, Society, and the Environment in Spokane.