UTEP Engineering and Liberal Arts Students Help Map Heat Distribution in El Paso to Understand Urban Heat Islands
Anahy Diaz | October 6, 2020
Students from the Colleges of Engineering and Liberal Arts at The University of Texas El Paso partnered with City of El Paso officials in a mapping field campaign aimed at identifying urban heat islands and effective solutions to reduce them.
The Urban Heat Island Mapping campaign, an integrated system co-developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), helps identify urban heat spots across communities in an effort to address heat-related illnesses, climate change mitigation, and adaptation strategies.
El Paso was among the 13 cities across the United States that were selected to take part in this summer project. The City worked with current census data and UTEP students to bring this project to life.
“UTEP has been fundamental during the whole process,” said Fernando Liaño Berjano, sustainability coordinator for the City of El Paso. “From leading the first meeting with the group to decide how we were going to prepare our proposal, to participating in the data collection process.”
Among the UTEP College of Engineering participants were electrical and computer engineering graduate students, Roberto Garcia and Guadalupe Ortega; and environmental science and engineering doctoral student, Julio Ceniceros. The students are fellows of the NOAA EPP Cooperative Science Center on Earth System Science and Remote Sensing Technology at UTEP led by Miguel Velez-Reyes, Ph.D., chair of electrical and computer engineering.
“This project is a perfect example of how science and technology can come together to benefit a community and even provide the capability to save lives,” Ceniceros said.
Ceniceros, Garcia and Ortega served as local volunteers by driving around the city recording temperature, humidity, and GPS coordinates using equipment sensors. Jayajit Chakraborty, Ph.D., director of the UTEP Socio-Environmental and Geospatial Analysis (SEGA) lab, contributed to the selection of neighborhoods and driving routes for this campaign.
According to the CDC, heat-related deaths, including respiratory illnesses, heat exhaustion, heat strokes, are some of the deadliest weather-related health outcomes in the United States. Heat islands contribute to increased energy consumption, which in turn increases emissions of air pollutants and heat-trapping gases.
“With the type of maps and tools this project is creating, city officials will be able to make better informed decisions related to healthy urban planning and offsetting any unnecessary exposure to extreme heat,” Ceniceros said.
The volunteers were organized into groups and given a predetermined route to drive, covering all major areas of El Paso. Several students volunteered to support logistics, drive designated routes, and record heat-related data. Graduate students affiliated with UTEP’s SEGA lab and master’s program in sociology included Katalina Salas, Ashley McAfee, Stephanie Morales, Marina Villegas and Michel Loustaunau. Students from the Latin American and border studies master’s program included Ana Fuentes, Gabriela Galindez and Daniel Miranda.
“I felt really fortunate to have been able to help in a project that will hopefully have a meaningful impact on our community,” said Fuentes.
Other student volunteers were Ileana Morales, Yohannes Getahun, Cletus Ogbodo, Arturo Andujo and Sasha Peterson.
“The high rise in temperatures has demanded more sophisticated cooling systems,thus expensive and difficult to battle by disadvantaged families,” said Ileana, an undergraduate sociology student. “By participating in this campaign, now I feel encouraged to apply to UTEP’s graduate school and focus my research on scientific and social research."
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, project officials ensured all volunteers followed the recommended preventive measures set by both the City of El Paso and UTEP, including a drive-thru model to pick up and drop off the equipment at UTEP’s Center for Inter-American and Border Studies (CIBS), coordinated by Patricia Juarez-Carrillo, Ph.D.
“All equipment was sanitized before handing it to the volunteers,” Berjano said. “Masks were provided to those that requested them. We also encouraged volunteers to partner up with someone they felt comfortable sharing a vehicle with. In some cases, due to personal concerns, some volunteers decided to drive on their own.”
After each route was completed, all the equipment and data were returned and prepared for analysis and mapping, which are set to be released to the public soon.
“I have an interest in weather and climate, and I love data so I’m pretty excited to get my hands on all the air temperature measurements collected throughout the city and see where the city’s hotspots are located,” said Garcia, who drove and collected data around the city with Ceniceros. “I am glad to have been able to volunteer in a campaign whose data will have a positive impact on the city of El Paso and the quality of life of its citizens.”
According to City of El Paso officials, the project will continue with education and outreach programs to interpret the significance of the results, which UTEP is set to participate in.
“Science is hard work and takes a lot of time,” Ceniceros said. “But when things come together in the end to create such helpful products, it really does make it all worth it.”