Rhode Island State House

As a part of ongoing efforts to better understand how extreme heat disproportionately impacts communities in Rhode Island, the Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH), the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM), and American Forests today announced that they have launched the Rhode Island Heat Watch Program, a community health mapping project.

The Rhode Island Heat Watch Program will organize community volunteers to measure heat and humidity in four Rhode Island municipalities—Central Falls, East Providence, Pawtucket, and Providence—during four one-hour blocks between 6 a.m. and midnight on July 29th. Fourteen cities across the country are participating in similar data collection efforts. Rhode Island is the first state to collect heat distribution data during the night to reveal which areas aren’t cooling off enough overnight.

“The issues of heat, health, and equity are closely intertwined,” said Director of Health Nicole Alexander-Scott, MD, MP in a news releaseH. “Putting interventions into place to help communities be as healthy and resilient as possible first requires us to understand how issues like extreme heat and climate change affect areas of Rhode Island differently. The Rhode Island Heat Watch Program will build on the work our Health Equity Zones and be an important part of Rhode Island’s efforts to promote equity and health at the community level.”

“In urban areas nationwide, trees can help prevent heat-related deaths and illnesses by lowering temperatures and counteracting the urban heat island effect, in which darkly colored surface materials such as roads and rooftops, absorb heat and make their urban surroundings warmer,” said Ian Leahy, Vice President of Urban Forestry at American Forests. “Knowing which neighborhoods are experiencing higher temperatures and which populations are being impacted disproportionately can help cities determine where trees are needed the most. Given that a 10-fold increase in heat-related deaths is expected in the eastern U.S. by 2050, the Rhode Island Heat Watch Program serves as a model for how other urban areas can prepare for and respond to extreme heat.”

Over 600 people in the United States die from extreme heat each year. Heat-related illnesses happen when the body is not able to cool itself and the heat causes damage to the brain and other vital organs. Communities that are particularly vulnerable to the effects of extreme heat include older adults, children, and places where median incomes are lower. Rising temperatures are exacerbated in urban areas with man-made materials that absorb sunlight and reduce green space. As a result, urban areas tend to have higher average temperatures than surrounding towns.

Volunteers will use specially designed thermal sensors mounted on cars to collect ambient air temperature and humidity data. Once data are collected, sensors are shipped to CAPA Heat Watch, an external partner who combines these data with satellite imagery to create high-resolution maps for use by Rhode Island communities and state agencies. This effort will allow data-driven heat mitigation efforts, such as urban forestry, to ensure that all Rhode Island communities have the systems and infrastructure in place to be more resilient in the face of climate change.