Charleston seeks heat-related health solutions

Two of the biggest weather impacts in southeastern cities like Charleston are flooding and heat.


“In the lingo of the resilience world: floods have more impact. The heat is killing more people,” said Dale Morris, Resilience Manager for the City of Charleston.

Extreme heat, which is a sustained heat index of 105 degrees, causes more weather-related deaths in the United States than any other hazard, according to National Weather Service. But not everyone’s risks are the same.

Morris calls himself “more of a water expert” who deals with flood risk mitigation. But lately, it has focused on heat mitigation through the city’s partnership with academic and government stakeholders seeking heat-health solutions.

“One of the cultural challenges you face in the Southeast is, ‘Well, it’s hot. What’s new in there? said Morris. “In reality, global temperatures are rising [worldwide],” he said. “So yeah, it’s actually getting hotter. It’s believed that there are tipping points for the onset of health impacts, even for people who are acclimated to the heat.

There is an income-related aspect to heat vulnerability, such as the affordability of air conditioning, Morris said. Low-income populations may have the same heat exposure as higher-income people, but the impact of heat may be greater without equal access to air conditioning.

There are also heat-related occupational implications for those who frequently work outdoors. It’s not about being exposed to two or three hours of heat a day – the health effects of heat come from exposure for long periods of time without any relief.

It takes a village

The city of Charleston is part of the North American Climate Resilience Program, a sub-programme of the Global Network of Resilient Cities. The network includes Boston, Chicago, New Orleans and Houston.

A research group from the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC), Health Outcomes from Temperature (HOT), is studying the health consequences of heat in Charleston and throughout South Carolina.

Morris believes the HOT studies will provide a better understanding of the microclimates of urban landforms where the region’s tree canopy and house density affect whether wind or shade can reach those houses.

He believes heat and health research at MUSC will strengthen Charleston’s partnership with other cities and government efforts.

“Many hands do light work,” Morris said. “As part of the Resilient Cities Network effort, we can share what we’ve learned with other cities, and we can understand what they’re learning. We are part of a larger set of processes.

“There is a great opportunity for us to learn more, and that [HOT studies] the information can eventually inform city policy or city investments or city actions,” he said.

In the wings


MUSC’s HOT research team collects and analyzes data to determine whether the number of deaths increases as the temperature rises and which sections of the city are more vulnerable to heat than others, said Dr. Jerry Reves, dean Emeritus of the MUSC College of Medicine. Ideally, data collection will be completed this summer.

The research group is led by principal investigator Dr. John Pearce, assistant professor of environmental health and head of the MUSC Air Quality Lab. MUSC’s HOT team is part of a research consortium that includes the Citadel, the city of Charleston, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and a New York-based company. Climate Adaptation Partners.

One of HOT’s efforts is a retrospective study that will measure the effect of temperature on the incidence of death by analyzing mortality data from 1999 to 2021 from the SC Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office (SCRF) and weather data at statewide, according to a HOT study plan authored by Pearce and Dreams. The goal is to predict which heat events are particularly dangerous for Charleston and SC, Reves said.

Another HOT effort is a prospective study that will identify two populated areas on the Charleston Peninsula that have historically experienced different levels of heat during the same high temperature, Reves said.

“One will be an area where the heat is not as intense and the other where it is more intense due to factors such as minimal tree cover, overcrowded housing, poor building materials and inconsistent air conditioning. .”

Geographic Information System (GIS) Department of the City mapped historically hot and cool spots in the city to contribute to the study. A tree canopy coverage map within the city limits can also be consulted on the city’s website.

HOT will compare temperature and air quality with morbidity and mortality in Charleston based on clinical data collected from MUSC, Roper Hospital, Regional EMS, Weather Service and own temperature sensors. consortium temperature.

The research team will analyze two areas related to heat-related medical problems to uncover differential factors and possibly improve the area that suffers the most.

“For example, if tree canopy is a heat attenuator, more trees can be planted,” Reves said.

Ultimately, the study will compare health outcomes in the vulnerable zone after performing heat mitigation to determine which measure protects the most people.

“If health improves with mitigation strategies, then citywide mitigation will be used where the benefit is greatest,” he said. “Global warming forces us to better prepare for the heat. And what has been underestimated is the fact that heat is life threatening.

Dr. Scott Curtis and Citadel volunteers helped with the 2021 HeatWatch experiment which involved taking measurements with mobile sensors | Courtesy of the Citadel

The Citadel volunteered to participate in three heat-related projects last year under the direction of Dr. Scott Curtis, director of the Near Center for Climate Studies at the Citadel.

The projects collected heat data across the city to find out where, when and why it was hot. Studies have focused on microclimates in areas such as the city’s medical district, to identify features such as tree canopy, urban design and heat index.

Curtis is currently looking to participate in HOT’s efforts in 2022 and beyond.

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