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Experts say extreme temperatures in Austin will require innovative solutions

A sun shade depicting a sunset on a car parked at Vic Mathias Shores, with the Austin city skyline behind
Gabriel C. Pérez
It's hot, and it's gonna stay hot.

It’s hot in Austin. Not in a this-is-what-summer-in-Texas-feels-like way, but in a records-are-consistently-being-broken-this-is-not-normal way. According to climatologists across the state, this type of heat is not temporary. In fact, it’s predicted to get worse.

“If you look at how heat emerges, it is by two things. One is by the large-scale climate shifts that many scientists have been projecting,” said Dev Niyogi, a professor of geological sciences and environmental engineering at UT Austin. "And the second is because of the growth in urban areas."

Niyogi said the close proximity of individuals and buildings combined with pollution from emissions causes the temperature of growing cities to increase. Even if you disregard climate change predictions, he said, a city can still expect a 1-to-3 degree increase in temperature in the next 10 years, if growth stays at a similar level to the previous two decades.

“Simply put, what we see is that heat is not just an extreme, it is truly an emergency,” Niyogi said. “It is affecting our children. … It is affecting our livability. It is taking away life from vulnerable populations. It is creating an energy emergency, and this is not going away.”

The City of Austin is helping residents manage the current heat wave by opening cooling centers and offering tips on how to stay safe — like staying hydrated and taking breaks indoors.

Taking individual steps to manage the heat is critical, but experts say there need to be long-term solutions to deal with consistent extreme weather. Enter the city's chief resiliency officer.

“We know that as we strive to build stronger and more resilient communities, we have to focus beyond response activities,” Laura Patiño said. “We're working with a variety of partners to really address preparedness, as well as looking at long-term mitigation and adaptation.”

It's Patiño's job to work with other city departments, such as the sustainability office, to develop strategies to mitigate extreme conditions and events with an eye on equity.

The city is currently researching a number of ideas to help mitigate extreme temperatures, like changing the way roads and roofs are built and painted.

“Roads can be built to basically reflect the heat. Typically, our asphalt and concrete roads absorb a lot of heat and make our streets and our environments a lot hotter," she said. "There are new materials that are being utilized to reflect the heat off of the surfaces and make our neighborhoods feel cooler."

The same methodology applies to roofs.

Patiño said planting trees also creates shade cover and an abundance of vegetation, in general, has been proved to have a cooling effect on environments.

When implemented, these solutions will help, but that may not be for a long time.

“When cities are trying to come up with solutions, there are several things that they need to come up with," Niyogi said. "There's water requirements, economic requirements, and the whole issue about who do you prioritize?”

Patiño was unable to give a date when Austinites will start seeing changes.

“Because we're still in the exploratory phase, it's hard for me to give you a timeline,” she said. “I think part of what the planning process will allow us to determine is what resources we have in place to be able to expedite the implementation of these interventions and build a timeline that, from an infrastructure standpoint, allows us to make investments in the communities that need it the most.”

In the meantime, Niyogi encourages Austinites to protect themselves from extreme temperatures.

“When you're coming to Texas, carry an umbrella. I think we should change the rhetoric here saying that it is not just umbrellas for the rain; it's also for the sun,” Niyogi. “People need to take this as a very serious emergency. Just the way if it was like a major hurricane making landfall, we make our plans about how we are going to cope through it. We need to be aware of that … and support the communities, support neighbors and support whoever we can in the process of doing this.”

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