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Sustainability News

View Source | September 14, 2018

Downtown Phoenix skyline with yellow skyNot only is Phoenix situated in the Southwest desert — the hottest region in the United States — it also happens to be the hottest major city in the country, and among the hottest in the world. More than 300 days of sun and thousands of square miles of concrete, asphalt and glass combine to make Greater Phoenix a living laboratory for the urban heat phenomenon and its associated ills.

And it’s only getting hotter.

Climate scientists predict daytime high temperatures will get higher, and nighttime low temperatures will continue their alarming upward trajectory. This is happening in a city that has already warmed an average of 5 degrees Fahrenheit over the past century, according to Nancy Selover, the state’s climatologist at Arizona State University’s Arizona State Climate Office.

This geographic and climatic sweet spot places ASU in a unique position to study the complex dynamics of the urban climate system. Its teams of researchers are exploring ways to mitigate extreme heat and develop strategies to improve the quality of life — not only locally, but with ideas that can have a positive impact on a global scale.

Across multiple disciplines, bringing together climate and social scientists with planners and designers, ASU is developing and evaluating strategies for sustainable urban designs and living. The epicenter of this work is happening at the university’s Urban Climate Research Center.

Matei Georgescu, associate professor in ASU's School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning and a senior sustainability scientist at ASU’s Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability, recently put the university in the spotlight for his work as part of a research team that published a groundbreaking analysis quantifying the projected value of urban farming on a global scale. The benchmark study, “A Global Geospatial Ecosystem Services Estimate of Urban Agriculture,” was published in the journal Earth’s Future and was covered in a variety of news media outlets. One scientist notably called the study “a major advance.”

The study found that not only does urban agriculture have the potential to increase global food production by several percent, but it has other tremendous benefits such as reducing the use of fossil fuels, generating an energy savings of up to 15 billion kilowatts and cooling the built environment.

Georgescu is now leading a similar analysis for the Phoenix metropolitan area.

As a climatologist and assistant professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, David Hondula studies the impacts of extreme weather on health and society. He is engaged in research that can help governments better understand extreme heat and develop strategies in how to respond to it.

“Hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and storms attract a lot of attention, but extreme heat and cold are actually the leading causes of weather-related deaths,” he said. And in Maricopa County, there are more than 100 heat-related deaths each year.

What makes extreme heat such a hazard? “The persistent, chronic nature of it,” Hondula said. “Heat is a discriminating hazard. It picks on elderly, poor and people who don’t have the means to get out of harm’s way.”

Hondula is working with the city of Phoenix to develop a first-of-its-kind readiness plan that will guide how the city identifies, tracks, prepares for and responds to the dangers of extreme urban heat. The “HeatReady” program would be a comprehensive approach to heat management, much like other cities have done for catastrophic storms.

Recently, the “HeatReady” idea was selected as a finalist in the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge, a national competition that challenges cities to confront their most pressing problems and to develop innovative ideas to solve them.

Phoenix advanced as one of 35 finalists out of a pool of more than 320 applications and will earn a $100,000 grant to further develop the program. Ultimately, it could receive a $1 million or $5 million grant.

Hondula is also working on a National Science Foundation-funded project to study and model the impacts of a large-scale power failure that would occur simultaneously with an extreme heat event in Phoenix, Detroit and Atlanta. He said they have already identified cooling centers in Arizona that are backed up by generators, and those that are not.

Read the full story on ASU Now.