SPH and the Chicago Tribune Collaborate to Map Heat Risk in Chicago
SPH’s Center for Climate and Health partnered with the Chicago Tribune to provide Chicagoans access to searchable maps depicting temperature trends and the availability of cooling resources in their communities.
Just in time for summer, a recent collaboration between the Chicago Tribune and the School of Public Health’s Center for Climate and Health (CCH) has produced the most comprehensive maps available to date of disparities in heat exposure across Chicago.
In under two months, a team of SPH researchers developed for the Tribune a publicly accessible data dashboard featuring interactive maps that show heat exposure, cooling infrastructure, and population demographics related to heat vulnerability in Chicago. Tribune reporter Sarah Macaraeg then incorporated content from the dashboard into her story “Mapping a threat: Climate change’s deadly summer heat may deepen disparities in Chicago,” which the Tribune published to its front page on May 28.
In addition to Macaraeg’s full investigation, the Tribune published two additional stories online: “Searchable maps,” where the public can explore heat disparities and cooling resources in their communities and “How we reported on heat disparities in Chicago,” where Macaraeg details the methods behind the mapping process.
“In the past, what [researchers] have sometimes done is build [data] dashboards that cover everything under the sun, and their utility has fallen outside the timeframe for taking important action. What we’ve done here is build a targeted set of maps that combine multiple existing datasets to pinpoint the gaps in the city’s climate adaptation strategy that should be targeted first,” says Kevin Lane, assistant professor of environmental health and leader of SPH’s work on the project.
Lane’s team included Muskaan Khemani (CAS ’22) and Jason Rundle (SPH’23), research assistants at CCH, as well as Greg Wellenius, professor of environmental health and director of CCH, whose research has shown thousands of U.S. deaths may be attributable to heat each year—not hundreds, as formerly believed.
After collaborating on a prior investigation into unequal access to air conditioning in Chicago, Macaraeg reached out to Wellenius for SPH’s help on the heat mapping project.
“Dr. Lane and his team were able to complete the Chicago Tribune project at speed by relying on established methods and datasets to produce understandable and actionable public health information for the residents and policymakers of Greater Chicago,” says Vanessa Boland Edouard, director of idea hub, the SPH innovation incubator that facilitated the Tribune partnership.
The project’s tight turnaround enabled the Tribune to release “Mapping a threat” shortly after Chicago’s mayoral election, drawing attention to the urgent need for the city’s next policy agenda to include a comprehensive heat management plan.
Macaraeg suggested the city’s newly elected Mayor Brandon Johnson should improve upon the strategies of his predecessors, citing the SPH team’s finding that nearly 50% of Chicagoans live more than half-mile’s walk from the nearest of the city’s cooling centers.
“Local knowledge is of the utmost importance to diagnose and examine [climate] adaptation strategies,” says Lane, who is also the SPH lead for the Consortium for Health Effects of Air Pollution Research (CHAIR India), a multi-university collaboration of researchers working to build a modeling tool for air pollution and heat metrics across India. “Reporters have that local knowledge because they’re on the beat, they’re talking with politicians, they’re talking to community members. They’re the ones that can put your information into the right context and be advocates for your science.”
Chicago, like Boston, contends heavily with the urban heat island effect that leads some neighborhoods to heat up more than others. Densely developed areas, with an abundance of dark roofs and asphalt, absorb more of the sun’s heat than greener areas with greater tree cover. Mapping local heat islands enables cities to tailor policies and target investments to cool vulnerable neighborhoods.
In Chelsea and East Boston, where SPH researchers have measured up to a 7-degree difference between hotter and cooler city blocks, an ongoing project called C-HEAT with the environmental justice organization GreenRoots has led to the installation of trees, water fountains, and white roofs to mitigate heat effects.
Using U.S. Census data and satellite observations from NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey, the SPH team calculated more than 300,000 people live in Chicago’s hottest areas, where average summer surface temperatures are an estimated 5 to 10 degrees above the city average. These areas, hotter than 90% of the rest of Chicago, are disproportionately populated by Hispanic/Latino residents.
Due to the legacy of discriminatory housing practices such as redlining and other forms of structural and environmental racism, communities of color have historically borne the brunt of extreme summer heat. An infamously hot week in July of 1995 resulted in the deaths of more than 700 Chicagoans; subsequent investigations revealed that a disproportionate number of those who died were low-income, elderly, and Black.
As average global temperatures continue to climb, cities across the country can expect more frequent and intense summer heat waves, but whether future heat waves have the tragic consequences of seasons past is an open question.
“There’s a new push now, especially under the current administration, to move towards shortening the timeframe for research translation. We now understand the value of having centralized data systems that will allow researchers, not just here in the US, but across the globe, to spend their time analyzing questions and finding solutions, as opposed to just building another dataset that’s very similar to many other teams’ [datasets],” says Lane, who was also recently tapped to co-direct the data management core at the BUSPH-HSPH Climate Change and Health Research Coordinating Center (CAFE). “I think opportunities like this show the tip of the arrow in terms of where we can go.”