Faculty and students participated in a study mapping heat patterns across Virginia.
Photograph by Jamie Betts

Hot or not?

September 14, 2021


Hector Gomez, ’22, and Sarah Page Steffens, ’22, had an unusual undergraduate research assignment this summer: Take a drive.

The students — under the guidance of Todd Lookingbill, associate professor of geography, the environment, and biology — took part in a heat-mapping study that involved more than a dozen colleges and universities gathering data on streets across Virginia on July 15. It is the largest heat-mapping study of its kind ever conducted.

The goal of the project, dubbed Heat Watch, is to determine how heat varies across communities to understand better where residents are most at risk during extreme heat waves.

Lookingbill and his students organized dozens of community volunteers to drive routes in different parts of the city of Richmond. They recorded air temperatures and humidity throughout the day using specially designed thermal sensors attached to the cars.

“Our team is building on data collected during a previous temperature campaign in 2017, and that data is already being used by Richmond and in student-authored publications to help identify vulnerable areas in our community,” Lookingbill said. “These are targets for new trees, parks, and other cooling measures.”

Data generated by this project will tie into multiple existing programs and initiatives in Virginia, including public health, energy efficiency, climate change mitigation, land use planning, equity and social justice, and community partnerships.

Researchers are using data from the 2017 efforts to analyze comparative data and create new focal points. For example, they are working to identify areas in Richmond that are getting hotter or cooler, increasing focus on parts of the city that were underrepresented in the initial sampling, and comparing Richmond’s temperatures to those collected at the same time in other locations across the commonwealth.

The UR team also collaborated with the Science Museum of Virginia and VCU to measure particulate matter and ozone levels, which relate to air quality.

“Community science initiatives like this heat-mapping campaign have contributed immensely to our understanding of how environmental stressors are not felt equally across communities here in the commonwealth,” said Jeremy Hoffman, chief scientist at the Science Museum.