VCU Researchers to Map Richmond’s Heat Wave Danger Zones

image of Kevin Watson and Devon Hunter

VCU chemical engineering students Kevin Watson, a rising senior, and Devon Hunter, a rising sophomore, will be using highly sensitive thermocouples mounted to cars and bicycles to measure hot spots throughout Richmond.

Virginia Commonwealth University engineering and arts students are teaming up with scientists and community volunteers in July to find out just how hot it gets in Richmond during a heat wave.

They intend to develop the first map of Richmond that identifies where large buildings or pockets without any trees or vegetation create “urban heat islands” — areas that can be appreciably hotter than other parts of the city.

“We will know what areas will be most affected by a heat wave and how hot it’s actually going to get there,” said Stephen Fong, Ph.D., associate professor and vice chair of the Department of Chemical and Life Science Engineering in the VCU School of Engineering. Several of Fong’s students will be among researchers and volunteers fanning out across the city three different times on one hot day this month in cars and on bicycles. They will use highly sensitive thermocouples to collect data in real time.

Jeremy Hoffman, Ph.D., a climate and Earth scientist at the Science Museum of Virginia, who helped spearhead the project, said other research has relied on satellite or climate model data to characterize urban heat in the South, but called this effort “the first real, ground-based assessment of the heat island here in a humid southeastern city like Richmond.”

Hoffman said it was important to find out “what exactly about the urban environment in Richmond causes hot weather to become even hotter. Through this analysis, we’ll be able to determine that.”

Hoffman contacted Fong after hearing about the new VCU interdisciplinary class that built a green wall, a vertical living garden, in downtown Richmond. “Dr. Fong and his colleagues’ interest in transforming Richmond into a more livable city using things like green walls to combat urban heat and improve air quality complements this heat island assessment in a unique way,” Hoffman said.

The researchers in Richmond are partnering with a team from Portland State University led by urban studies professor Vivek Shandas, Ph.D., who has developed a comprehensive mapping tool to overlay location-specific heat data with information about demographics, air pollution and features such as roads, buildings and trees. The Portland team will be visiting Richmond to help gather and analyze the data.

Other groups involved include Groundwork RVA, a community nonprofit group working with Richmond youth, who will help collect temperature readings, and students from the University of Richmond, who will work on analyzing data.

Using the PSU method as a model, Fong said that the VCU team would use statistical modeling to build an overlay map that will extrapolate the samples to cover any gaps and “generate a map covering the entire city.”

Urban heat islands can lead to increases in heat-related illness, energy consumption and air pollution. Being able to identify the areas that are most vulnerable could help officials reduce such impacts.

Fong said the City of Richmond was also eager to know where the extreme hot spots are. “They can allocate resources ahead of time to be proactive, not reactive,” he said. Also, in the long term, he said, if more green walls were to be installed in the city, “we should be installing them in those areas. What we’ve been piloting can be part of a long-term solution.”


To learn more about urban heat islands, check out this video by Jeremy Hoffman, Ph.D., a climate and Earth scientist at the Science Museum of Virginia.