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

 
 

Cheers Health has expanded its product line as it evolves as a wellness-focused brand. Photo courtesy of Cheers

Houston-based startup Cheers first got a wave of brand devotees after it was passed over by investors on Shark Tank in 2018. In the years since, Cheers secured an impressive investment, launched new products, and became a staple hangover cure for customers. When the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted businesses, the company rose to the occasion and experienced its first profitable year as drinking and wellness habits changed across America.

Cheers initially started its company under the name Thrive+ with a hangover-friendly pill that promised to minimize the not-so-fun side effects that come after a night out. The capsules support the liver by replacing lost vitamins, reduce GABAa rebound and lower the alcohol-induced acetaldehyde toxicity levels in the body. The company's legacy product complemented social calendars and nights on the town, providing next day relief.

With COVID-19 lockdowns and social distancing measures, the days of pub crawls and social events were numbered. Cheers founder Brooks Powell saw the massive behavior change in people consuming alcohol, and leaned into his vision of becoming more than just a hangover cure but an "alcohol-related health company," he says.

When the pandemic first hit, Powell and his team noticed an immediate dip in sales — a relatable story for businesses in the grips of COVID-19.

"There is a three day period where we went from having the best month in company history to the worst month in company history, over a 72 hour stretch," he remarks.

He soon called an emergency board meeting and rattled off worst-case "doomsday" scenarios, he says.

"Thankfully, we never had to do any of these strategies because, ultimately, the team was able to rally around the new positioning for the brand which was far more focused on alcohol-related health," he says.

"We found that a lot less people were getting hangovers during 2020, because generally when you binge drink, you tend to binge drink with other people," he explains.

He noticed that health became an important focus for people, some who began to drink less due to the lack of social gatherings. On the contrary, some consumers began to drink more to fill the idle time.

According to a JAMA Network report, there was a 54 percent increase in national sales of alcohol for the week stay-at-home orders began last March, as compared to the year prior.

"All of a sudden, you have all of these people who probably aren't binge drinking but they're just frequently consuming alcohol. Their drinks per week are shooting up, and they're worried about liver health," explains Powell.

Outside of day-after support, Cheers leaned into its long-term health products to help drinkers consume alcohol in a healthier way. Cheers Restore, a dissolvable powder consumers can mix into their water, rehydrates the body by optimizing sodium and glucose molecules.

For continued support, Cheers Protect is a daily supplement designed to increase glutathione — an antioxidant that plays a key role in liver detoxification — and support overall liver health. Cheers Protect, which was launched in 2019, became a focus for the company as they pivoted its brand strategy and marketing to accommodate consumer behavior.

"The Cheers brand is just trying to reflect the mission statement, which is bringing people together through promoting fun, responsible and health-conscious alcohol consumption," says Powell. "It fits with our vision statement, which is a world where everyone can enjoy alcohol throughout a long, healthy and happy lifetime,."

At the close of 2020, Cheers had generated $10.4 million in revenue and over $1.7m in profit — its first profitable year since launch.

During the brand's mission to stay afloat during the pandemic, the Cheers team was also laying the groundwork for its entry into the retail space. When Powell launched the company during his junior year at Princeton University, bringing Cheers to brick-and-mortar stores had always been a goal. He envisioned liquor and grocery stores where Cheers was sold next to alcohol as a complementary item. "It's like getting sunscreen before going to the beach, they kind of go hand in hand," he says.

"When we spoke with retailers, specifically bars and liquor stores, what we learned is that a lot of these places were hesitant to put pills near alcohol," he says. Wanting an attractive and accessible mode of alcohol-support, the Cheers team created the Cheers Restore beverage.

Utilizing the technology Cheers developed with Princeton University researchers, the Cheers Restore beverage incorporates the benefits of the pill in a liquid, sugar-free form. The company states that its in-vivo study found that the drink is up to 19 times more bioavailable than pure dihydromyricetin (DHM), a Japanese raisin tree extract found in Cheers products and other hangover-related cures.

"What we figured out is that if you combine DHM — our main ingredient — with something called capric acid, which is an extract from coconut oil, the bioavailability shoots way up," says Powell. He notes the unique taste profile and the "creaminess" capric acid provides. "Now you have this lightly carbonated, zero-sugar, lemon sherbert, essentially liver support, hangover beverage that tastes great in 12 ounces and can mix with alcohol," he explains.

The Cheers Restore beverage is already hitting the Houston-area, where its found a home on menus at Present Company. The company has also run promotions with Houston hangouts like Memorial Trail Ice House, Drift, and The Powder Keg.

Currently, the beverage is only available in retail capacity and cannot be ordered on the Cheers website. As Powell focuses on expanding Cheers Restore beverage presence in the region, he welcomes the idea of expanding nationally in the future to come. While eager customers await the drink's national availability, they can actively invest in Cheers through the company's recently-launched online public offering.

Though repivoting a company and launching a new product is exciting, the process did not come without its caveats and stressors. While Cheers profited as a business in 2020, the staff and its founder weren't immune to the struggles of COVID-19.

"I think 2020 was the first year that it really became real for me that Cheers is far more than just some sort of alcohol-related health brand and its products," says Powell. "Cheers is really its employees and everything that goes into being a successful, durable company that people essentially bet their careers on and their family's well-being on and so forth," he continues.

"It really does weigh on you in a different way that it's never weighed on you before," says Powell, describing the stress of the pandemic. The experience was "enlightening," he says, and he wants others to know it's not embarrassing to need help.

"There is no lack of great leaders out there that at long periods of their life they needed help in some way," he says. "For me that was 2020 and being in the grinder and feeling the stress of the unknown and all of that, but it could happen to anyone," he continues.

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