From Guest Columnist MTSU Professor Adelle Monteblanco:
Many TN residents are quite familiar with what scientists call the urban heat island effect: when our cities experience warmer temperatures than nearby suburban and rural areas because of how well the surfaces in each environment absorb and hold in heat. With our global climate heating up, Nashvillians and Knoxvillians can expect to encounter hotter summers, with dire health consequences for some of our most vulnerable residents. Read on to find out how extreme heat exposure may worsen the U.S. maternal health crisis and a local volunteer opportunity in August to map the hottest parts of these two cities.
Academic studies and community experience are building a mountain of knowledge about how summer heat and heat waves endanger human health in both immediate and long-term ways. In fact, heat waves are the most lethal weather-related disaster in the U.S., and because of the climate crisis, we’ll experience hotter summers and more frequent, more intense, and longer heat waves. However, high temperatures are not experienced equally across all communities. Heat exposure shifts based on where we live, with important differences across urban, suburban, and rural communities because of the urban heat island (UHI) effect. UHI occurs because of dense concentrations of pavement, buildings, and other surfaces that absorb and hold heat, air pollution, as well as anthropogenically-produced heat; this pattern is also shaped by less plants and soil to cool the air. This can make an average summer day in an urban city feel unbearable, especially to those without access to cooling. Even within city limits, there are important temperature differences between neighborhoods, as shaped by poverty and racism.
Like any other social or environmental force, heat islands affect some people more than others. One group that remains largely overlooked from heat preparation and response efforts is pregnant people. Yet a decade of research concludes that when pregnant people are exposed to high temperatures, they are at an increased risk of premature births, low birth weight, and stillbirth. Pregnant people are also more likely to experience heat-related illnesses than people who aren’t pregnant and growing evidence indicates heat exposure might be linked to pregnancy complications and gestational diabetes. At this time, little is being done to manage these health threats to families.
SisterSong defines reproductive just as “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities” [emphasis from author]. Urban heat threatens the human right for families to gestate and parent their children in a healthy environment. This happens in the context of a country (U.S.) that already has the highest maternal mortality rate among developed countries; a rate that intensified during the first year of the COVID pandemic. This maternal health crisis is particularly dire for Black women, who are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications as white women. Further, compared to white women, Black women are more likely to give birth prematurely, to underweight babies, or for their pregnancies to end in stillbirth.
Unless addressed with attention to equity, the urban heat island will deepen this maternal health crisis, a crisis that disproportionately affects Black communities because of systemic racism, income inequality, and occupational risk. For example, urban heat is shaped by a legacy of racist housing policies and historic disinvestments in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color with impacts still felt today. These practices leave marginalized folks to live, work, and play in hotter neighborhoods and without the resources to cope with higher temperatures.
But you can help!
In an effort to better understand temperature exposure across neighborhoods of some of our largest TN cities, an urban heat-related educational and data collection effort is coming your way! Nashville and Knoxville are two of 14 cities across the U.S. invited to participate in a summer 2022 urban heat island mapping campaign. This community-led project was funded through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
The data will provide insights into understanding temperature patterns across each city, which will help leaders reduce unequal heat exposure with thoughtful interventions, including increased tree canopy and the best placement for cooling centers. As reproductive justice supporters, you are well-suited to map the hottest and most vulnerable communities of Nashville and Knoxville to better assist public health, policy, and nonprofit leaders to strategize for effective policies that prioritize a cooler, safer, and more equitable Tennessee.
Volunteers are needed to drive along predetermined routes over three separate one-hour periods on a hot day in August. Data will be collected using a specially designed sensor that attaches to volunteers’ cars and collects temperature and humidity throughout the route they are driving. The campaigns also welcome volunteers who will serve as navigators to help direct drivers along their routes. All volunteers will be required to participate in a virtual volunteer orientation, short online training session, and sign a liability release waiver. Drivers will need a valid drivers’ license, access to a vehicle, and auto insurance. Based on previous campaigns, volunteers spend an average of 4.5 hours over three weeks, with most of the time occurring on the actual campaign day. To learn more about the TN urban heat island campaigns and to become a volunteer member of your local mapping team, please visit the Nashville or Knoxville websites.