Why do some neighborhoods get hotter than others?
This lesson is part of our Climate 101 educational series for parents and K-12 educators.
It’s getting hot in here — “here” being the earth in general. Average global temperatures are on the rise, contributing to more frequent severe weather events, including storms, wildfires, and that summertime staple, extreme heat.
High temperatures are a serious public health concern. Extreme heat kills more Americans each year than any other weather-related event. Neighborhoods with less green space, more poverty, and older infrastructure are particularly at risk. Black and brown communities are often exposed to intensified extreme heat, since those areas have been historically subjected to racist policies such as disinvestment and redlining.
Scientists predict that unless we do something about climate change, both off-the-charts heat indexes (when it feels warmer than 127 degrees Fahrenheit) and back-to-back heat waves (cycles of extreme heat interspersed with only short breaks of normal weather) will become more common. But the good news is that it’s not too late to do something about extreme heat! Climate action could still avert hundreds of heat-related deaths per year in many U.S. cities.
We queried an expert and went through the Grist video archives to come up with a few lesson plans. Here’s to helping the kid in your life better understand extreme heat — and keep cool this summer!
Level: Grade 4+
How a hot city can keep its cool
Dreaming of an island escape this summer? There’s one kind of island you’ll want to be wary of if you’re trying to beat the heat. Due to something called the “urban heat island effect,” cities like Los Angeles and New York are literally the hottest places to live — and climate change is only heating things up more.
ACTIVITY: Find your home’s hot spots
Many areas of the U.S. are already grappling with extreme heat. That’s partly because the earth is warming at an uneven rate. Roughly 1 in 10 Americans are currently living in regions that have already exceeded 2 degrees Celsius of warming above pre-industrial levels.
To better understand how certain neighborhoods can get hotter than others, we asked Grist Fixer Jeremy Hoffman, chief scientist at the Science Museum of Virginia, to come up with a sizzling experiment you can even try at home:
HOT SPOT SCAVENGER HUNT
- I like to do an activity with infrared thermometers to find the hottest and coolest spots around your home or classroom. Choose a few different surfaces — think different materials, elevations (since heat rises), and light conditions — in various rooms. (If you want to get really scientific, go to a local pet store and buy an infrared lamp to simulate the sun!). If you do the activity outside, you might choose a sunny spot on concrete, a sunny spot on the grass, a shady spot on the sidewalk, and a shady spot on the grass. Playgrounds make for interesting observations as well!
- If you don’t have access to infrared thermometers, you can try using a meat thermometer — or a more DIY approach to ranking temperatures. For example, you could freeze a tray of ice cubes and place each one in a glass in a different location. Keep checking back on the ice cubes after a certain interval of time — say, one minute — and see which ones melt the fastest.
- Take photos of where you took your measurements, and see if you can “rank” why certain surfaces are warmer. This leads into a conversation about the urban heat island effect and how we use Urban Health Institute data to help people in the current climate crisis.
- Next, you can brainstorm extreme heat solutions, which usually involve creating more shade and green space.
- Look up shady native trees that you could plant in your neighborhood or around your house.
- Design and build a shade structure for a nearby bus stop or find a spot in your yard for a rain garden — this is a great family or whole-classroom activity.
ACTIVITY: Build your own swamp cooler
Air conditioners can use a lot of energy. Fortunately, there are ways to stay cool without AC — like a low-carbon, low-cost, DIY swamp cooler. Hot tip: it works better in dryer places, like New Mexico or Arizona. This video (again, classic Grist) will walk you through the basics of making one of your own.
ACTIVITY: How hot will your town be in the future?
Curious about how many days of scorching heat your county might experience in the future? Check out this interactive map and search tool to see how your hometown could be affected, depending on what level of climate action we take to avert the crisis.
#TBT tips for staying cool
This video is a bit of a throwback (look at that green screen!) but vintage Umbra’s advice still stands. When the mercury starts to rise, consider trying some of these lower-carbon ways of staying cool.