Omaha Study Examines Heat Differences in City

Aug. 10, 2022, 6 a.m. ·

Abdoulaziz Abdoulaye of UNMC demonstrates a sensor used in the heat study (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)
Abdoulaziz Abdoulaye of UNMC demonstrates a sensor used in the heat study (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

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As Nebraska swelters in summer heat, a team of researchers in Omaha is looking at whether it’s worse in some areas of the city than others, with an eye toward helping people cope.

Drive into Omaha on a recent Saturday morning, and the weather forecast gives you fair warning of what to expect: a very hot day, with excessive heat warnings in effect, and temperatures that feel like between 104 and 111 degrees.

But that kind of heat might not be evenly distributed. According to Suzanne Fortin of the National Weather Service, the official temperatures reflect the area where measurements are taken.

“Right now the official observing station for the metro area is Eppley airport, which you know, is by the river, it’s next to the airport… So there could be a vast difference between what goes on right by the river, and what goes on in an area that basically is surrounded by concrete,” Fortin said.

Figuring out which areas are more or less affected by heat is the goal of a new study by a coalition of groups, spearheaded by the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

Fortin said the idea is “to basically do a campaign to assess the urban heat island effect. And probably (in) the more impoverished areas, I would say, of Omaha, there's definitely a lack of shade and perhaps adequate cooling. And so this exercise is to basically have a cadre of volunteers to drive back and forth across the city and to assess temperature and humidity to determine how it differs mainly from some of the outlying areas,” she said.

Those differences can be important. The National Weather Service says excessive heat kills more people in an average year than any other natural phenomenon.

Weather fatalities last year and for 10-year and 30-year averages (Source: National Weather Service)
Weather fatalities last year and for 10-year and 30-year averages (Source: National Weather Service)

One of the volunteers driving around this day is Max Rudolph, whose route starts at the Omaha Housing Authority’s Pine Towers at 15th and William streets. From there, Rudolph weaves through south Omaha to Bellevue, passing a mix of inner city residential, industrial, and leafy suburban neighborhoods. Every second, a sensor attached to his van will record temperature and humidity data, linked to a GPS location.

At the same time, other study participants are driving seven other routes across the city taking measurements, which will then be compared.

Lisa Smith, a long-range planner with the city of Omaha, says the results could have a practical impact.

“One of the things that we're interested in finding out is where we might need to set up cooling stations, in partnership with Douglas County Health Department and UNMC. The other thing that we're interested in is where we would want to focus on planting more trees in the city to help cool certain neighborhoods that are missing trees,” Smith said.

Rudolph, who in his professional life is an actuary, said the heat is part of a larger problem that’s important to people in his field.

“We're interested in the financial repercussions of the world around us. And the world around us is changing. And so and climate is a lot of the reason why the climate has been stable for 10,000 years since the Ice Age. And now it's changing very quickly. So we need to understand how those changes are happening so that we can develop premiums for insurance products and pensions and other products that we work on,” he said.

Rudolph gave a practical example.

“One example I think of is last summer, when we had that night of really heavy rains that flooded down in the Old Market area. The size of the sewer pipes were designed for a hundred years ago. But now, with climate change you're having more, stronger storms. And so, you need to have bigger sewer pipes. And so that all goes into the premium that a city would pay, and if you're going to have flooding, then that the average homeowner would pay as well,” he said.

And problems linked to heat and climate change are not just limited to inner-city neighborhoods, says Abdoulaziz Abdoulaye of UNMC, who’s helping to lead the study.

“This is a community problem. And today, if you see the way extreme heat is affecting the world, it’s really a global issue. In the U.S., we have more than 85 million-plus people at risk of extreme heat. In Europe, we have already more than 2,000 people died,” Abdoulaye said.

At the local level, data from the heat study will be compiled over the next few weeks, and Abdoulaye says that will be followed with discussion with the community of what actions should be taken to deal with the problem.