Heat-mapping study found major temperature swings within Virginia localities

By: - March 29, 2022 12:02 am

A first of its kind study looked at disparities in temperature in communities across Virginia. (Getty Images)

A report by a group that represents Virginia’s independent colleges and universities demonstrates how much hotter paved-over areas lacking green spaces can be than places with tree cover and other cooling features. 

The heat-mapping effort, which the Virginia Foundation for Independent Colleges called the largest study of its kind, aims to give local governments the data they need to “tackle heat-related issues” with policy, such as tree-planting campaigns, as communities plan for climate change, a news release says. The report showed differences in temperature as big as 10 degrees in different parts of the 10 Virginia cities participating in the study. Although the data confirmed a long-held understanding that wide streets and paved-over parking lots can increase the temperature of an area, Jeremy Hoffman, chief scientist at the Science Museum of Virginia, said the level of detail captured in the study helped illustrate the impact of climate change to a wider audience.

“Climate change is sometimes presented as a very far away phenomenon like it’s not happening here, and far away in time like it’s not happening right now,” Hoffman said.

Over 200 volunteers took 490,423 measurements in the summer of 2021 along designated routes at different times of the day to gather temperature variations in Abingdon, Arlington, Farmville, Harrisonburg, Lynchburg, Petersburg, Richmond, Salem, Virginia Beach and Winchester. The number of volunteers participating in the data collection made what would have been a long and arduous process manageable, said Todd Lookingbill, the chair of the Department of Geography and the Environment at the University of Richmond.

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“If it were just me kind of doing this all by myself, it would have taken three months, basically, of constant sampling in order to collect the amount of data, the hundreds of thousands of data points that we were able to collect with all that effort over the course of one day,” he said. 

Other higher education institutions such as Virginia State University, Shenandoah University, Roanoke College and the University of Lynchburg participated in the effort.  

Similar studies had been conducted in Richmond, Roanoke and Norfolk previously – one of which revealed that areas of Richmond where people of color live experience higher temperatures disproportionately. But despite the variety in the geographic landscape of the cities where measurements were taken the results still showed a correlation between infrastructure and lack of natural environments and higher temperatures.

A heat-mapping study by the Virginia Foundation for Independent Colleges found big temperature swings withing participating Virginia cities. (Screenshot)

“It goes to show just how consistent these stories are,” Hoffman said. “Even in a smaller city, even up in higher in elevation, we see the same patterns over and over again.” 

The next step is for the participating institutions to make use of the data for climate resilience projects in their communities. “You’ll see it pop up in a report about housing access,” Hoffman said. “You’ll see it pop up in a report about the quality of bus stops, you’ll see it pop up in a piece about vacant lots, and urban gardens and heat exposure.”

As for UR, the team that has worked on Heat Watch will present the results of the study at scientific conferences in the coming weeks, Lookingbill said. He also was excited by the level of engagement among students, who he said were instrumental in designing the routes for the volunteers to take measurements. 


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Jackie Llanos Hernandez
Jackie Llanos Hernandez

Jackie Llanos Hernandez was a Virginia Mercury intern while studying journalism and anthropology at University of Richmond. Jackie grew up in Colombia before moving to Virginia. Jackie is also the investigative and multimedia editor at the independent student-run newspaper, The Collegian.