First-of-its-kind project seeks to protect US children from alarming global trend: ‘We want to give our kids the tools to protect themselves’

A new first-of-its-kind heat-mapping project aims to keep children and other vulnerable groups out of harm’s way as we face an ever-warming planet.

Experts expect heat stress to cause 38,000 global deaths per year by 2050. Babies and children living in poorer neighborhoods face the greatest risk related to rising temperatures, and these dangers can start even before they are born.

Extreme temperatures, combined with a lower socioeconomic status, have already been linked to lower average birth weight in babies. Children and older people also face the greatest risk of heat-related deaths. Experts also fear that increasingly common hot weather could affect learning among young people, potentially reducing academic performance by up to 7% each year.

A community-driven initiative launched by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) aims to use maps and the power of citizen scientists to arm communities with heat information that can protect residents, including the most vulnerable among them — children, those from lower socioeconomic classes, and minorities — from rising temperatures.

Since NOAA launched the project in 2017, more than 20,000 community volunteers have come on board. These citizen scientists collect data by mounting heat sensors onto their cars. More than 1 million measurements were gathered in 2022 alone, and this information helps federal governments implement cooling solutions in communities.

One such solution is urban greening, or adding greenery and trees to urban areas, which has been shown to drop temperatures by an average of 2.9 degrees Fahrenheit.

South Carolina has already used the project’s information to implement cooling strategies for its residents. The state recently declared a heat safety awareness week and is using the data to build urban farms (a type of urban greening) and a new energy-efficient hospital in Charleston.

Federal agencies signed up through the program can also implement strategies to make heat information and resources more accessible to their communities so that residents can be more prepared.

This initiative is different from other heat-mapping projects because of its heavy reliance on community participation. While previous mapping studies focused on land surface temperatures, this project focuses on air temperatures and humidity, which gives a more accurate representation of the heat people face daily.

Morgan Zabow, climate and health communication and outreach coordinator of the National Integrated Heat Health Information System, said that heat can be a silent killer, which poses a challenge when it comes to protecting communities.

“If a tornado, an active wildfire, or flooding comes through a town, you’re going to see the destruction,” she told the BBC. “Heat is unfortunately harder for governments to prioritize and fund.”

Christina Howard, a Dallas, Texas, resident contributing to the project, told the BBC she and her husband are participating because “we want to give our kids the tools to protect themselves from extreme heat right now and when they’re older. Who knows what might become of the world in the future [if] there’s not enough heat research and actionable change.”

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