Minorities more likely to live in ‘urban heat islands,’ study finds

Heat waves rise and distort Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles during a major heat wave in June.
(Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images)

Blacks, Asians and Latinos are more likely to live in “urban heat islands” that are most at risk during extreme heat waves that are expected to worsen due to climate change, according to a new study.

Researchers at UC Berkeley used satellite imagery to find neighborhoods in hundreds of U.S. cities where there are few shade trees and a lot of heat-absorbing, impervious surfaces like pavement, cement or roofing.

The authors paired that information with data from the 2000 Census to find that blacks were 52% more likely than whites to live in “urban heat islands” -- microclimates that can get an extra 5 to 10 degrees warmer during heat waves -- while Asians were 32% more likely and Latinos were 21% more likely.


The study, published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, also found that people who live in more segregated cities, including whites, are more likely to live in heat-absorbing neighborhoods.

”Overall this pattern of racial segregation appears to increase everyone’s risk of living in a heat-prone environment,” study co-author Rachel Morello-Frosch, a professor of public health and environmental science at UC Berkeley, told the Los AngelesTimes.

The research highlights one way in which minorities are likely to suffer disproportionately from the effects of climate change. Living in a concrete jungle could put blacks, Asians and Latinos at greater risk during heat waves, which are expected to become more intense, frequent and long-lasting as cities heat up.

Extreme heat waves are responsible for about one in five deaths from natural hazards in the United States, the study said.

To help reduce the risk, the study recommends that city planners plant more trees, paint highly reflective roofs, use pavement that absorbs less heat and consider racial and ethnic inequalities in decisions about adapting to a changing climate.

“Efforts to minimize heat risks in cities need to be more attuned to the racial disparities we see on a national scale,” Morello-Frosch said. “We need to make sure that any heat mitigation strategies really focus on the most vulnerable communities.”


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