New from Impact-based Decision Support (IDSS): The “food desert” is also hot.

The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” – Genesis 2:15-17 (NIV)

A recent LOTRW post suggested that scientists face a dilemma. On the one hand, scientists should be non-partisan; else they (we) will be unable to sustain science. Instead its progress will be intermittent, fluctuating wildly with each change in political winds as science falls in and out of favor. This will slow, even compromise innovation. On the other hand, unless scientists learn to be (more effectively) partisan, science can’t and won’t be maintained long term. That’s because science has to demonstrate continuing societal benefit to justify society’s substantial investment in science in the face of competing needs. But societal benefit is necessarily textured, improving the lot and prospects of some more than others – and in today’s world, that’s political.

A specific recent finding from meteorology illustrates this larger problem.

It turns out that the so-called “food desert” is also hot.

A brief review of food deserts:

A food desert is an area, especially one with low-income residents, that has limited access to affordable and nutritious food. In contrast, an area with supermarkets or vegetable shops is termed a food oasis. The term food desert considers the type and quality of food available to the population, in addition to the number, nature, and size of food stores that are accessible. Food deserts are characterized by a lack of supermarkets which decreases residents’ access to fruits, vegetables and other whole foods. In 2010, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported that 23.5% of Americans live in a food desert, meaning that they live more than one mile from a supermarket in urban or suburban areas, and more than 10 miles from a supermarket in rural areas. Food deserts lack whole food providers who supply fresh protein sources (such as poultry, fish and meats) along with whole food such as fresh fruits and vegetables, and instead provide processed and sugar- and fat-laden foods in convenience stores. Processed, sugar- and fat-laden foods are known contributors to the United States’ obesity epidemic. Convenience store prices are less affordable to regular consumers around the area.

And here’s the new result: The Washington Post reported over the weekend that (these same) poor city neighborhoods are also much hotter than wealthy ones. An excerpt:

As Washington sweats through yet another wave of oppressively hot days, heat has become one more way to measure inequality in a city already defined by it. Like educational attainment, wealth accumulation and life expectancy, where you live is a deciding factor. Your location in the city not only dictates how hot it is, but also the likelihood that the heat itself will be dangerous: The poor, who often cannot afford air conditioning and are more likely to have medical conditions that are exacerbated by heat, have fewer ways to escape it.

“Some people have a much hotter day than others,” said Jeremy S. Hoffman, a climate and earth scientist working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to map the heat in Baltimore and Washington. If the results, expected to be finished sometime this month, bolster earlier research in Washington, and echo studies in other heavily populated urban areas, it will show that wealthier neighborhoods, which often have a lot of trees, yards and parks, will be cooler than poorer neighborhoods, which often don’t.

The studies come at a time when cities like Washington are beginning to grapple with the prospect of an increasingly hot future, the result of climate change and the unforeseen consequences of urban development. In the same way sprawl has left some cities vulnerable to crippling floods, it has also created vast, industrialized “heat islands” — urban places without much vegetation, but blocks of impervious surfaces such as asphalt and concrete that absorb heat all day, then release it slowly into the night, causing nighttime temperatures to spike as well.

This effect is stronger in Washington than in just about any other city, according to a 2014 report by Climate Central, which found that the city is the country’s sixth most intense urban heat island. Summer is nearly 5 degrees warmer in Washington than in the surrounding area, and relatively warmer still during the night, when the temperature is on average 7.1 degrees higher.

But wide variances in temperatures also apply within the city’s boundaries.

“Land cover can be so different and the amount of concrete varies so greatly, that it can be 65 someplace [in the city] and 75 in another place,” said Yesim Sayin Taylor, executive director of the D.C. Policy Center. “Wards 2 and 3 have lots of trees and parks, and there, the heat has a way of escaping. . . . But there are other parts of the city that are equally [residential], but because they don’t have the tree coverage, they experience higher heat.”

The urban heat island has long been a thing, but new observing platforms and sensors combined with data analytics now allow scientists to prise out this heat-island effect at neighborhood scales.

(Okay, Bill, but surely the “original sin” quote at the head of this post is a bit over the top?) A natural question. So, let’s ask ourselves, given that meteorologists understand this heat island effect – and now don’t simply understand that it exists even down at neighborhood scales, but are able to measure the effects at that level – what are the options for Impact-Based Decision Support (IDSS)?

It’s not hard to imagine a spectrum of options:

  • At one end, meteorologists might simply measure and predict atmospheric conditions down to the neighborhood scale.
  • An additional intermediate (IDSS-type) step might involve working with emergency managers and using other data, say Census data, to estimate the resulting heat stress people will be experiencing and the variations and impacts at the neighborhood level. It’s then up to emergency managers to get that word out to that scale.
  • (Oversimplifying a bit) a further, Weather-Ready-Nation-like step might include seasonal efforts reminding those individuals and communities at risk of the importance of hydration during heat waves, and the need to pay attention to heat-wave forecasts and warnings during the warm season.
  • In a future world featuring an internet of things (IoT), emergency managers might know who has air-conditioning, whose air-conditioning is broken-down, whose air-conditioning is working, whose air-conditioning has been turned off, possibly to forestall an unaffordable spike in the electrical bill, who is especially vulnerability by virtue of age, disability, pre-existing health conditions, ethnicity, etc. (Such high-resolution and admittedly intrusive information could have saved a lot of lives in the Chicago heat wave of 1995.)
  • None of these measures address the poverty at the root of the problem; all allow the vulnerability of the affected populations to continue indefinitely. So at the far end of the spectrum of actions are those that focus on providing minimum education, employment, health care, shelter, etc., to the poorest at greater risk, reducing the footprint of food deserts and their close cousins the heat islands. Of course at this extreme there are honest differences about the efficacy of the different policy options.

Meteorologists, as individuals and as a community, get to decide where on this spectrum they/we can and should participate.

But one option is foreclosed: ignorance.  None of us gets to say we were unaware of the fuller dimensions of the problem. Immediately, with that knowledge, any innocence we might wish to claim dies. And that loss of innocence is a killer. It weighs on us, brings us down.

Wearing our meteorological caps we might choose to be complacent about what use is made of our forecasts of atmospheric conditions. We might say that it’s up to emergency managers and city officials from other departments to take the next step. It’s up to educators, and health officials, and corporate leaders – and ultimately, the poorest themselves – to work their way out of the continuing vulnerability.

But as we’ve been reminded in media headlines on subjects ranging from #MeToo to the Catholic Church to the physical risks and moral dilemmas of football, to national and local politics, complacency is one step from complicity, which in turn is one step from culpability.  We all have to live, in every circumstance of life, including this one, with the reality that I could have done more.

This reality might at first inspection seem drear, but it actually contains three kernels of good news – not just good news, but amazingly good news.

The first is that meteorology and the work of meteorologists matter. One really horrible bill of goods the world invites us to buy is that work is just something we do to support us financially – that it steals time away from our real lives, which only exist outside of work. We encouraged to subscribe to the notion that we can love and be loved, experience joy, and meaning only at closing time. We live for the weekends and for that elusive goal called retirement. But the fact is that life’s meaning, and love and larger purpose and challenge and significance are threaded throughout the fabric of work – all work.

The second is that all 320 million of us here in the United States, and all seven billion of us globally – are in this together. We share any guilt and any burden, and we’ll all be needed to make things right. No one is a spectator; no one shoulders the problem alone.

The third is that there’s something to the Judeo-Christian idea that God has a backup plan for those of us (that’s all of us) afflicted with the knowledge of good and evil, and the accompanying loss of innocence.

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The food desert is also hot. Science and technology have revealed this, and science and technology can help fix it.

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