Sophomore Fanni Ventilla used to have a stream in her backyard.
It was a place in which she and her siblings could splash on summer days, the flowing water nourishing the trees along the bank that provided refuge both for children who needed a break from the sun as well as for the owls that roosted in their branches. As the sun lowered, the family could hear the owls hooting into the cooling air.
But over the years, as global temperatures have continued to rise, Fanni watched her beloved stream slowly shrink, then fully dry out.
“As the temperature increased, the stream stopped flowing,” she shared, and the losses cascaded from there. “This caused many of the nearby trees to dry out. Some of these trees were recently cut down, and, as a result, the owls that used to come to our yard were forced to find a new home. It’s sad to not hear the hooting.”
Extreme heat has been the number-one weather-related cause of death in the United States for the last three decades, and future heat waves will continue to threaten lives around the globe. By identifying urban heat islands, we can better pinpoint where life-saving heat mitigation resources should be prioritized.
In today’s changing climate, stories like these are not uncommon. Rising temperatures are affecting environments as small as individual backyards and as massive as polar ice caps. They’re also wreaking havoc on human bodies: extreme heat has been the number-one weather-related cause of death in the United States for the last three decades, and future heat waves will continue to threaten lives around the globe.
And even though extreme heat is here to stay for the foreseeable future, Rowland Hall Coordinator of Climate Studies Rob Wilson hasn’t lost hope in our ability to protect one another from its impact—and he doesn’t want his students to either. That’s why, in early 2023, Rob jumped on an opportunity for his climate science class to get involved in a community project to map extreme heat, to better safeguard lives.
In partnership with representatives from Utah State University's Utah Climate Center, Salt Lake City, and the Natural History Museum of Utah, the class helped to apply Salt Lake City for participation in the annual urban heat island mapping campaign, a citizen scientist program funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Cities chosen for this program (more than 60 to date) are provided support from CAPA Strategies, an organization that helps map heat distribution within communities. The goal of this work is to identify urban heat islands—hotspots that can measure up to 20 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than areas with more trees, more grass, and less pavement that absorbs heat—so that local decision-makers can better pinpoint where life-saving heat mitigation resources should be prioritized. This work is necessary because urban heat islands are often home to those most vulnerable to the health impacts of extreme heat, which are exacerbated in environments that are unable to cool to under 80 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature bodies need for recovery. And when people don’t have access to cooler environments, Rob explained, damage can happen quickly.
Being able to collect the data, view the data afterward, and see how people are going to use that information to better our community makes me feel proactive rather than a bystander.—Maddie Mulford, class of 2024
“When experiencing extreme heat, the body responds by dilating the peripheral blood vessels to release heat through the skin. This causes a drop in blood pressure and leads to reduced blood flow to internal organs, and can lead to chronic heat-related illness such as kidney failure,” he said. “In acute cases, when body temperature gets too hot—such as when you live in a space without air conditioning in a city hotspot, over multiple days of a heat wave—the body experiences heat exhaustion or heat stroke. Heat stroke is a medical emergency, and develops when body temperature exceeds the range of tolerance of the cells and organs begin to fail.”
Rob and his students knew that mapping Salt Lake’s hotspots would make a real difference in saving lives during heat waves, so when it was announced that the city was one of 18 communities in 14 US states and one international city chosen for the 2023 campaign, they were ready jump into action—both to help map data and to use that information to make a difference to others.
“I think there's not enough opportunities for people to feel like they're doing something hands-on to help people, especially when it comes to issues like extreme heat or climate change,” said senior Maddie Mulford, who was integral to the early project proposals to the city and who, along with classmate Max Jansen, drove a route for the Salt Lake City campaign. “Being able to collect the data, view the data afterward, and see how people are going to use that information to better our community makes me feel proactive rather than a bystander. I think programs like these are a good way of showing that people don't need to be a huge political figure or start a super new and innovative organization to fight climate change. Helping can look as simple as driving around on a Saturday afternoon.”
Maddie’s observation is what Rob always hopes his climate science students take away from class.
“I want students to feel empowered,” he said, and this goal has played a major role in how he’s structured climate science, now in its fourth year. “This subject feels alarmist—and you’re going to get the alarmist message for your entire life. I want to avoid that. Part of helping students to not give in to alarmist messages is to offer them opportunities to take real action against some of the hardest problems our planet is facing. Action is incredibly empowering, and it helps you realize that you can make a difference. We saw this as we worked on this campaign: the mapping project gave us agency. We could address something that’s important to ourselves, our neighbors, and our city, that will help us cope with changes that are happening in our city.”
Part of helping students to not give in to alarmist messages is to offer them opportunities to take real action against some of the hardest problems our planet is facing. Action is incredibly empowering, and it helps you realize that you can make a difference.—Rob Wilson, coordinator of climate studies
Many members of the community also felt that empowerment as they came together for Salt Lake’s heat mapping campaign on July 15. That day, 42 volunteers, including Rowland Hall students and community members, mounted sensors on their cars and drove 10 routes around the city in the early morning, afternoon, and evening, recording the temperature and humidity data that CAPA Strategies would use to create the city’s heat map. This work, which took place over a weekend in which tens of millions of US citizens were under heat advisories, captivated more than just those who were there. Multiple news outlets covered the project between July 13 and 19, and Maddie and Max, along with classmate Angus Hickman, joined Rob on RadioACTive, a local program that highlights grassroots activists and community builders, to share their experiences and talk about why heat mapping is necessary.
Fanni was among those watching the coverage on the news and via the school's Instagram account, and she was inspired by what she saw. Since taking AP Environmental Science at her last school (Fanni transferred to Rowland Hall for sophomore year), she’s spent a lot of time thinking about how pollution contributes to the heat waves that have affected not only her backyard trees, but also her grandmother, who lives in Europe. “My grandma is worried about going outside due to the extreme heat because she has heart issues,” said Fanni. “She has no access to AC, and if homes don’t cool down it causes health problems. That really worries me.”
As she watched some of her new peers contribute to a project that will provide real solutions to local residents, Fanni realized she, too, could do something that would both ease her worries and help support ongoing heat mitigation efforts. This fall, she took action by starting the Upper School’s Climate Action Club, which has set a goal to collaborate with TreeUtah to help plant trees in the hotspots identified in Salt Lake City’s Heat Watch Report and to create a website that will teach others how they can help.
“The heat mapping data makes it clear that we need to take action and we need to take it now,” said Fanni, who joined junior CJ Wujkowska on an October 30 follow-up episode of RadioACTive to discuss next steps that will be taken in Salt Lake’s heat mitigation efforts. “I want to help the city stop the urban heat island effect by planting trees and educating the population in this area about the importance of taking responsibility for the environment.”
I felt like I could do nothing, but now I know I can, and I want people to know they can do something. Everyone can take small steps that will make a better future—and even help now.—Fanni Ventilla, class of 2026
And Fanni isn't the only student applying the data. This year’s climate science students have been hard at work studying the Heat Watch Report findings, and each has picked an area that speaks to them and that they want to explore further: long- and short-term heat-related illness (Ani Agarwal), heat and mental health (Brooke Brown), heat and topography (Hayden Kaufman Schiller), heat and outdoor work (Kiri Mannelin), urban heat and sports training (Bea Martin), heat and air quality (Lulu Murphy), urban heat and redlining (Cam Prichard), and heat and invasive insects (CJ Wujkowska). In addition to writing articles about their chosen subjects for submission to The Gazette, the Upper School newspaper, each student created a poster about their subject that was shared with community members who attended Making the Invisible Visible, a November 5 community event that brought together members of the Salt Lake City heat mapping team, scientists, policy makers, and community members to discuss the Heat Watch Report and solutions that will help the community be more resilient to future heat waves.
It is just the start of what’s to come of this important work, and a promising glimpse of how Rowland Hall students will continue to tackle climate concerns.
“I felt like I could do nothing, but now I know I can,” said Fanni, “and I want people to know they can do something. It’s not just a problem that only scientists and professionals can solve. Everyone can take small steps that will make a better future—and even help now."
Banner photo: Upper schoolers Maddie Mulford and Max Jansen show one of the heat mapping probes that was used to gather temperature and humidity data in Salt Lake City on July 15, 2023.