hot spots

City of Houston works to map heat across town for larger climate resiliency plans

The Houston Harris Heat Action Team is working to locate Houston's hottest spots. Screenshot via h3at.org

On August 7, when the thermometer reached a high of 93 degrees, a squad of 85 temperature detectives fanned out across Houston and Harris County. Their objective: Map the area's urban heat.

Organizers of the one-day endeavor pinpointed 320 square miles of Houston and Harrison County for collection of data about urban heat. Hardware attached to cars and bicycles traveling on predetermined routes took temperature and humidity readings during three one-hour periods: 6-7 am, 3-4 pm, and 7-8 pm.

The devices tracked temperature changes throughout the day in places featuring various characteristics, such as lots of green space, pavement or buildings. In all, the "street scientist" volunteers measured temperature and humidity in 32 heat-mapping pockets covering 10 square miles each.

The heat-mapping initiative was coordinated by the Houston Harris Heat Action Team, a collaboration of the Nature Conservancy of Texas, Houston Advanced Research Center, City of Houston, and Harris County Public Health. The team's corporate partners are Lowe's and Shell.

The team says urban areas are especially prone to high temperatures due to a combination of hard surfaces (buildings and roads), limited vegetation (such as trees), and heat generators like cars and factories.

"This problem, known as the urban heat island effect, can create issues for human health, infrastructure, and quality of life. Understanding how temperatures vary based on qualities of the natural and built landscape can inform how we reduce the impacts of rising summer temperatures in our communities," the team says.

Marissa Aho, the city of Houston's chief resilience officer, says the heat-mapping data will be available this fall through an open-source platform. Aho offers a heat-mapping project in Honolulu as an example of how Houston's data will be presented.

The Resilient Houston plan, released in February by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, called for a heat-mapping effort like the one carried out August 7 and outlined ways to reduce urban heat, such as planting 4.6 million new native trees over the next 10 years and retrofitting roofs to decrease heat absorption. Aho says the heat-mapping data will bolster initiatives to lessen the "urban heat island" effect.

"Houstonians do not prepare for heat like we prepare for hurricanes, but we should," Turner says in a release. "Houston is getting hotter, and we need science and data to help identify where the greatest impacts are so we can keep Houstonians safer and our city more resilient."

According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, extreme heat — defined as at least two consecutive days with temperatures above 90 degrees — ranks as the country's No. 1 cause of weather-related deaths. A 2017 study published by the National Resources Defense Council found the Houston area averaged 18 dangerously hot summer days per year from 1975 to 2010. Without any action to combat urban heat, Houston's annual number of days hit by dangerous summer heat could rise to 80 from 2046 through 2055 and 90 from 2091 to 2100.

Urban heat "leaves vulnerable communities susceptible to the dangers of stress and stroke, leads to higher ozone levels, and reduces the quality of life for all residents of the region — creating especially dangerous conditions for communities already striving to overcome historic obstacles around access and resources, as well as those who engage in outdoor work and recreation," according to the release from the Houston Harris Heat Action Team.

Aside from the human toll, urban heat exacts a financial toll. A 2017 study by researchers in the United Kingdom, Mexico, and the Netherlands indicates overheated cities face climate-change costs at least twice as high as the rest of the world due to urban heat islands.

Organizers of Houston's heat-mapping project note that last August was the second warmest on record in the city, with seven consecutive days when the temperature topped 100 degrees. As climate change takes hold and Houston continues to expand, "these heat-related challenges continue to be exacerbated," the release states.

Jaime González, Houston Healthy Cities Program director at the Nature Conservancy, says the heat-mapping data gathered August 7 will help determine where to plant trees, install "green" roofs, and promote other heat-mitigation tactics.

"We have a number of nature-first solutions in our toolkit that can help us cool our cities, but the first step in combating climate- and infrastructure-caused urban heat is to know exactly where to start," González says.

Houston was one of 13 U.S. communities chosen to participate in this summer's Heat Watch program, led by Portland, Oregon-based environmental services company CAPA Strategies LLC and backed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

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Building Houston

 
 

5G could be taking over Texas — and Houston is leading the way. Photo via Getty Images

Based on one key measure, Houston sits at the forefront of a telecom revolution that could spark a regional economic impact of more than $30 billion.

Data published recently by the Texas Comptroller's Office points out that as of last November and December, Houston led all cities in Texas for the number of so-called "small cells." Small cells are a key component in the rollout of ultra-high-speed 5G wireless communication throughout the Houston area and the country.

As the Texas Comptroller's Office explains, small cells are low-powered antennas that communicate wirelessly via radio waves. They're usually installed on existing public infrastructure like street signs or utility poles, instead of the big communication towers that transmit 4G signals.

The comptroller's tally shows Houston had approved 5,455 small-cell sites as of the November-December timeframe. That dwarfs the total number of sites (1,948) for the state's second-ranked city, Dallas.

"Houston is in the vanguard of small cell permitting in Texas, and not just because it's the state's largest city; advocates have lauded its proactive approach to 5G. Other cities, particularly smaller ones, are lagging well behind," the Comptroller's Office notes.

According to CTIA, a trade group for the wireless communications industry, 5G holds the promise to deliver an economic impact of $30.3 billion in the Houston area and create 93,700 jobs. The group says industries such as health care, energy, transportation, e-commerce, and logistics stand to benefit from the emergence of 5G.

"Maintaining world-class communications infrastructure is a requirement for success in a rapidly changing global economy. Small cells and fiber technology are the key foundational components for network densification and robust 5G. Cities like Houston that have embraced the need for this infrastructure will see the benefits of 5G faster than others," Mandy Derr, government affairs director at Houston-based communications infrastructure REIT Crown Castle International Corp. and a member of the Texas 5G Alliance, tells InnovationMap.

Derr says leaders in Houston have embraced the importance of small-cell technology through "reasonable and effective" regulations and processes aimed at boosting 5G capabilities. Three major providers of wireless service — AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon — offer 5G to customers in the Houston area.

"More small cells and fiber provide greater and faster access for the masses, enabling the connectivity that is essential to our businesses today — whether it's accepting payments on a mobile card reader, completing a sale on the go, or reliably reaching consumers where they are," Derr says.

In a blog post, Netrality Data Centers, which operates a data center in Houston, proclaims that Houston is shaping up to be a hub of 5G innovation.

"Houston has always been on the frontline," Mayor Sylvester Turner said during a 5G roundtable discussion in 2019. "It is who we are. It is in our DNA. We are a leading city. We didn't wait for somebody else to go to the moon. Or to be the energy capital of the world. Or the largest medical center in the world. But you don't stay at the front if you don't continue to lead."

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