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Researchers Mapping 'Heat Islands' In Austin Return To The Streets

A man panhandles at the intersection of Airport Boulevard and the North Interstate 35 Frontage Road with a dog.
Gabriel C. Pérez
A man panhandles at the intersection of Airport Boulevard and the I-35 Frontage Road in 2018. UT researchers are mapping so-called "heat islands," parts of the city where large extensions of concrete and asphalt absorb more heat.

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As summer temperatures bear down on Austin, University of Texas researchers want to know what parts of town are taking in the most heat.

Volunteers will take to the streets to map out the city's hottest spots as part of a two-year partnership between the city, UT Austin and local community groups meant to fight the so-called urban heat island effect. The project is funded with a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Climate change is raising temperatures across the globe, but large extensions of asphalt and concrete are making it worse in some cities. They absorb heat and radiate it into the air, raising the temperatures in some blocks by 10 to 15 degrees.

The researchers drove around Austin neighborhoods last year to try to get local heat data. This year, they’ll get even more detailed by setting up standalone heat monitors away from roads and sending volunteers out on bikes.

Dev Niyogi, the UT Austin professor and climatologist leading the project, said the goal is to map the entire city, but his team’s efforts will focus on the parts where they've already noticed higher temperatures.

“When you are doing measurements where you're actually driving down with sensors, we know that there are parts of the city like the eastern part of the city or places near the airport where we are seeing these obvious hotspots, literally speaking,” he said.

Niyogi said his team will use the data, along with satellite information and community feedback, to develop cooling strategies like tree planting. Those strategies will then be run through computer models to test their effectiveness.

“What does it mean when I say we want to make the neighborhood cooler? Do we have to put 10 trees? Thirty trees? Is there enough water? All those questions start to become very interesting and very useful,” he said.

Mose Buchele focuses on energy and environmental reporting at KUT. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @mosebuchele.
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