Urban heat islands roast Savannah each summer. What can be done to stop it?

Sandra Lanier braves the hot afternoon temperatures as she walks along Bay Street in West Savannah.

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

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Sandra Lanier braves the hot afternoon temperatures as she walks along Bay Street in West Savannah.

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

Savannah is known for its dreamy, oak-lined walkways that lure in tourists from throughout the world. But across town the summer sun is beating down on parts of the city without much shade.

"By 4 o'clock you can survive, but 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. ... that's when people drop," said Saundra Lanier. She's in Garden City, walking down west Bay Street on a sidewalk by a multi-lane road before it gushes into one of Savannah's bustling highways. Without any shade, the sidewalks running up and down this vein of Garden City broil in the summer sun.

The humidity is like a blanket, Lanier said. In her neighborhood, under the trees, she said her house is warm but not near as hot as the road she’s walking along. When she gets to her house, the air conditioning is cranked up so she can recuperate after the time outside.

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Nicole Green and Sharla Gorman walk down the ramp on an uncovered pedestrian crossing over Highway 21 in Garden City.

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

Nicole Green and Sharla Gorman walk down the ramp on an uncovered pedestrian crossing over Highway 21 in Garden City.

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

Combined ShapeCaption
Nicole Green and Sharla Gorman walk down the ramp on an uncovered pedestrian crossing over Highway 21 in Garden City.

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

“Bay Street is the hottest street in Savannah,” Lanier said. Temperature is much more local than the average weather app user might think, and even in cities with as many trees as Savannah there are “heat islands,” areas where the lack of shade and amount of concrete and pavement cause a location to grow hotter than other parts of the community. While the jury is still out on whether Bay Street is the hottest street in the city, Lanier has honed down on the fact that some areas of the city are much hotter than others.

What are heat islands?

The National Weather Service gets its local temperature and forecast information from local stations, which for Savannah is located at the Savannah-Hilton Head International Airport up Interstate 95 by the Tanger Outlets. But not all of Savannah is going to have the same temperature, or conditions, as the airport.

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A man walks across an uncovered pedestrian crossing over Highway 21 in Garden City.

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

A man walks across an uncovered pedestrian crossing over Highway 21 in Garden City.

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

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A man walks across an uncovered pedestrian crossing over Highway 21 in Garden City.

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

Dr. Marshall Shepherd, director of the University of Georgia’s Atmospheric Sciences Department, said that the temperature can change even down to the block a person is standing on.

Shepherd is a self-proclaimed "Weather Geek," which he named his Weather Channel talk show-podcast. He has not only had research funded by NASA, the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy, but also works in outreach and is a regular personality on the Weather Channel. Viewers may also have seen him on CBS's Face The Nation, NOVA, The Today Show, CNN and Fox News.

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There are three main ways urban areas can become heat islands, Shepherd said. First, cities have more heat-absorbing surfaces like pavement, black-top roofs and concrete. Second, they're more likely to have fewer trees that provide cooling services through evapotranspiration. Lastly — and a factor people might think of less often — Shepherd said that "waste heat" from car engines and HVAC systems contributes to the climbing temperatures.

Heat inequalities

Research nationwide, and locally, reflects that urban heat islands disproportionately impact communities of colo Redlining has been pointed to as a central reason more people of color live in heat islands, but Shepherd said he and his team are looking to put a bit more rigor into that analysis and see what other factors in addition to redlining are at play.

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Gose and Helena Gonzalez cool off in the spray fountain at Forsyth Park.

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

Gose and Helena Gonzalez cool off in the spray fountain at Forsyth Park.

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

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Gose and Helena Gonzalez cool off in the spray fountain at Forsyth Park.

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

U.S. Census data estimates that 43% of the population in Garden City is Black and another 15% identify as Hispanic or Latino, and it is one of the many predominately minority neighborhoods in the western part of the city.

"Brown and Black people live disproportionately in some of these areas, and they are some of the more vulnerable members of our communities from the standpoint of climate change, health disparities and income," Shepherd said, and many of these communities don't have adequate air conditioning or cooling centers.

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The "canopy layer" heat island — the air temperature around us — peaks at night and in the early morning hours.

"When the temperatures don't cool off adequately at night, that's when the physiological response from the body is most critical and dangerous," Shepherd said. He explained that this is why the heat waves in Europe, where many don't have air conditioning in their homes, has been so devastating. After a full day of absorbing heat from the sun, at night all the paved surfaces radiate the heat back into the air.

Cooling cities down

Shepherd said there are a couple of ways to reduce the heat island effect. The lowest hanging fruit is the one more communities do already: plant more trees and vegetation. Constructing with more reflective surfaces, rather than heat-absorbing, can also help bring the temperatures down. Both these solutions have been around for a while, but Shepherd said he and many other researchers are working on new engineering and technology solutions.

In Forsyth Park, the tree effect is already on display. Tourists hit the park for shade, and indulge in its splash pad to cool off. Some researchers consider this part of Savannah, with its many close-together, tree-covered squares a model for fighting heat islands.

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Holyfield wipes down his Ford Mustang in the shade on Jenks Street near Bartow Park in West Savannah.

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

Holyfield wipes down his Ford Mustang in the shade on Jenks Street near Bartow Park in West Savannah.

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

Combined ShapeCaption
Holyfield wipes down his Ford Mustang in the shade on Jenks Street near Bartow Park in West Savannah.

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

Ultimately, heat should be a consideration in planning. Shepherd gave the example of cities in Europe that designed urban areas with corridors that take advantage of prevailing winds to ventilate the heat in the city.

Savannah residents are accustomed to the heat, and it's no surprise when the dog days roll around each summer and you can see the steam rise off the asphalt in the mornings. Right now, Savannah's solution to the heat is the classic southern air conditioning culture, where entering a grocery store puts goosebumps on your arms.

Another resident of Garden City, a man who only identified himself as Holyfield, said that's the trick to beating the heat. An older gentleman, he said he doesn't spend much time outside. On a Friday afternoon, he is washing his car in the shade of a local park.

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"I've watched every movie on Netflix," Holyfield said. He prefers to be inside, where the AC is blasting, a luxury he said is afforded by his nephew who he lives with. He said it gets hotter and hotter every year, especially with all the development from the ports, around which he swears he has seen the heat melt pavement.

Marisa Mecke is an environmental journalist. She can be reached at mmecke@gannett.com or by phone at (912) 328-4411.

This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: Urban heat islands roast Savannah each summer. What can be done to stop it?


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