As heat risk grows, researchers hunt for Atlanta’s hotspots

Georgia Tech student Meg Sanders, left, talks with Darryl Haddock, director of environmental education for the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance, as they use a device and app to map temperature data while walking on the Westside Beltline on Wednesday, June 15, 2022. (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

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Georgia Tech student Meg Sanders, left, talks with Darryl Haddock, director of environmental education for the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance, as they use a device and app to map temperature data while walking on the Westside Beltline on Wednesday, June 15, 2022. (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

Heat waves are becoming more common and intense, but experts say the risk they pose is not evenly distributed.

On Wednesday under the searing Georgia sun, Darryl Haddock, the education director for the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance, huddled with a group of students from Georgia Tech and Spelman College outside the West End MARTA station.

Meg Sanders, a graduate student at Georgia Tech, pulled four blue-and-white air temperature sensors from her backpack to distribute. They powered up the devices and after a quality control check, Haddock and the students headed north on Lee Street toward the Atlanta University Center.

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Spelman student Sommer Madison, left, and Georgia Tech student Meg Sanders set up an app to map temperature data from a Bluetooth device as they walk near the Westside Beltline on Wednesday, June 15, 2022. (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

Spelman student Sommer Madison, left, and Georgia Tech student Meg Sanders set up an app to map temperature data from a Bluetooth device as they walk near the Westside Beltline on Wednesday, June 15, 2022. (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

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Spelman student Sommer Madison, left, and Georgia Tech student Meg Sanders set up an app to map temperature data from a Bluetooth device as they walk near the Westside Beltline on Wednesday, June 15, 2022. (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

It was just after 11 a.m. and already, heat warnings had kicked in for almost all of Georgia, as a record-breaking heat wave settled over much of the country this week.

Climate scientists say many extreme heat events bear the fingerprints of human-caused climate change. But the burden of heat waves, like many other weather events made more destructive by climate change, is often felt most acutely in lower-income areas and communities of color, experts say.

Many of those neighborhoods have fewer trees and more heat-radiating surfaces, like roads and parking lots, the result of decades of discriminatory zoning and lending practices sometimes referred to as “redlining.”

Haddock and the students are part of an effort that began in March 2021 called UrbanHeatATL, which enlists students and citizen scientists to map temperature variations across the city.

As they walked, Sommer Madison, a Spelman student, used an app to check the air temperature snapshots captured every second. Even in the shade of MARTA’s tracks and a few scrubby trees, it showed temperatures near 90 degrees.

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Darryl Haddock, the director environmental education for the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance, walks over I-20 in the West End holding a device that transmits temperature data to his phone to map the air temperature as he walks Wednesday, June 15, 2022, as part of a research study. (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

Darryl Haddock, the director environmental education for the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance, walks over I-20 in the West End holding a device that transmits temperature data to his phone to map the air temperature as he walks Wednesday, June 15, 2022, as part of a research study. (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

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Darryl Haddock, the director environmental education for the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance, walks over I-20 in the West End holding a device that transmits temperature data to his phone to map the air temperature as he walks Wednesday, June 15, 2022, as part of a research study. (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Soon after, crossing over Interstate 20, the app showed a reading of 99 degrees. It was not even noon yet.

Later on Wednesday, Atlanta toppled a 70-year-old record for the date when it officially hit 99 degrees, roughly 12 degrees above the normal average high for the month of June.

As this heat wave persists and another lies on the horizon, Na’Taki Osborne Jelks, an assistant professor at Spelman College and co-academic lead for UrbanHeatATL, says this data is vital to helping the city plan for a hotter future.

ExploreA cooler weekend is in the forecast, but more heat is likely on the way

“We want to use this data that’s collected by local students and community members to advance environmental and climate justice in Atlanta,” she said.

‘You keep accumulating that heat’

Annual average temperatures in Atlanta have risen about 3 degrees since 1930, according to National Weather Service data. But that doesn’t tell the whole story of the city’s growing heat risk.

Scientists have found heat waves — a stretch of two or more days with abnormally warm temperatures — are growing more frequent and intense due to human-caused climate change. Today, Atlanta experiences roughly six more heat waves each year than it did in the 1960s, according to an analysis of federal data.

It’s also common for extreme heat to turn deadly. More than 600 people die each year in the U.S. from extreme heat, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The risk is greatest for the elderly, children, those who are overweight and people with underlying health conditions or taking certain medications.

Exposure to daytime highs can cause heat illness or stroke, but heat that persists overnight is especially dangerous. Bodies need time to cool down at night, said Kristie Ebi, a professor at the University of Washington.

“And if you can’t do it — if temperatures don’t fall at night — then you keep accumulating that heat.”

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Landon Poitra of Greater Georgia Concrete pours water on his head while working outdoors during a heat wave in Atlanta on Wednesday, June 15, 2022. Temperatures in Atlanta reached 99 degrees late Wednesday afternoon, setting a record for this date. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Landon Poitra of Greater Georgia Concrete pours water on his head while working outdoors during a heat wave in Atlanta on Wednesday, June 15, 2022. Temperatures in Atlanta reached 99 degrees late Wednesday afternoon, setting a record for this date. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Combined ShapeCaption
Landon Poitra of Greater Georgia Concrete pours water on his head while working outdoors during a heat wave in Atlanta on Wednesday, June 15, 2022. Temperatures in Atlanta reached 99 degrees late Wednesday afternoon, setting a record for this date. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

In response to the heat, the city of Atlanta opened one cooling center at the Old MLK Natatorium Wednesday-Friday from noon to 7 p.m. daily.

Other shelters for people without a place to live, like MUST Ministries in Cobb County, also extended their daytime drop-in hours.

Falecia Stewart, MUST Ministries’ vice president of housing, said the shelter has seen about a 10% increase in clients since the heat wave began. Longer, hotter summers will have implications for how MUST plans for the future.

“It will definitely require additional funding on our behalf,” she said.

A new push to map the city’s Westside

Atlanta’s hot start to June shows little sign of abating: A new forecast Thursday from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration calls for an increased chance of above average temperatures for Georgia through September.

As summer officially begins next week, researchers from UrbanHeatATL are planning a new push to collect heat data.

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Georgia Tech students Zarya Ajasin, from left, and Meg Sanders, along with Spelman student Sommer Madison listen to Darryl Haddock, director of environmental education for the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance, as they mapped temperatures along the Westside Beltline on Wednesday, June 15, 2022, for a research study. (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

Georgia Tech students Zarya Ajasin, from left, and Meg Sanders, along with Spelman student Sommer Madison listen to Darryl Haddock, director of environmental education for the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance, as they mapped temperatures along the Westside Beltline on Wednesday, June 15, 2022, for a research study. (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

Combined ShapeCaption
Georgia Tech students Zarya Ajasin, from left, and Meg Sanders, along with Spelman student Sommer Madison listen to Darryl Haddock, director of environmental education for the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance, as they mapped temperatures along the Westside Beltline on Wednesday, June 15, 2022, for a research study. (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

A growing network of stationary sensors are capturing temperature data 24/7, and Jelks says she plans to get 120 new sensors into the hands of students and residents. She said they plan to focus on getting communities more involved in data collection, with an emphasis on historically redlined neighborhoods on Atlanta’s Westside.

Jelks hopes a full picture of the city’s problem areas can lead to action.

“We want to understand how this urban heat island phenomenon is specifically playing out in Atlanta, identify those neighborhoods that are most vulnerable, and then work with those communities to develop solutions to address the issue,” Jelks said.


A note of disclosure

This coverage is supported by a partnership with 1Earth Fund, the Kendeda Fund and Journalism Funding Partners. You can learn more and support our climate reporting by donating at ajc.com/donate/climate/