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The GW Hatchet


The GW Hatchet

Serving the GW Community since 1904

The GW Hatchet

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Column: DC residents need help to cope with scorching temperatures

Because of the “urban heat island effect,” some neighborhoods don’t have it equal when it comes to summer heat.

My return to Foggy Bottom in late August was a painful reminder of how insufferable D.C.’s heat and humidity can be. Between the incessant sweating, dehydration and sunburn, I was just about ready to never leave my room again, especially after a straight week of temperatures above 95 degrees Fahrenheit in September.

But as hot as it felt in Foggy Bottom, not all D.C. neighborhoods have it equal when it comes to summer heat — some parts of the District known as “heat islands” can get up to 17 degrees warmer than others. While D.C. can’t control the weather, city officials can and should address dangerously high temperatures.

Heat islands generally affect neighborhoods that lack shade or greenery but have lots of concrete or paved dark surfaces. These materials absorb and radiate more heat back into the environment than grassy parks or green trees — just think about the difference between standing in Kogan Plaza and University Yard on a sunny afternoon.

One map of ambient temperatures in D.C. shows that the hottest parts of the city are in Wards 1, 4 and 5 — between Rock Creek in the west and the Anacostia River in the east. Among these areas, the neighborhoods of Shaw, Brightwood, Manor Park, Brookland and Trinidad stand out as heat islands.

Those located in the hottest areas of D.C. also have more difficulty coping with or recovering from the heat, whether from a lack of air conditioning, access to green space or underlying medical conditions. Heat waves disproportionately affect people of color, those experiencing homelessness and medically vulnerable groups like babies and elderly people.

In a warming world where summer temperatures come earlier and stay later, the problem of heat islands will likely only become worse — and it’s time for the city to act. The 2023 District of Columbia Emergency Heat Plan already outlines the use of cooling centers, recreational facilities, public pools, parks and libraries throughout the District to help people take refuge from the heat.

These centers can help D.C. residents cool off, but they’re separate from the goal of reducing the city’s temperature in the long term. To do so, the city has plans to maintain and expand green spaces, revise building codes and plant more trees to provide shade — the District received more than $34 million in recent federal grants for local tree planting earlier this month. But for D.C. to succeed, these measures can’t just be future strategies. We need to be implementing them now with tangible, deliverable goals to match.

Through low-cost, high-impact methods, other major cities across the country are addressing extreme heat. In New York City, city planners have begun painting the roofs of buildings with light-colored reflective paint, which reduces the amount of heat absorbed and can lower the temperature of the building without air conditioning. The rooftops themselves reduced peak roof temperatures by between 42 and 43 degrees compared to a typical black roof during a summer 2011 trial, and they can play a part in reducing temperatures in urban heat islands if widely implemented. Los Angeles applied a similar treatment to some of its roads in 2018, aiming to reduce the amount of heat the city traps.

From paint to parks, there are plenty of ways to bring D.C.’s temperatures down. But the point is that we need to act now. The phenomenon of urban heat islands is not a problem we can afford to put off to the future — dragging our feet on it risks the health and wellness of our fellow residents.

This summer proved that each summer is only going to feel hotter than the next. City officials owe everyone in this city the same level of protection from extreme heat.

Anaya Bhatt, a sophomore majoring in political communications, is The Hatchet’s contributing social media director and a staff writer.

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