As record high temperatures blanket the state each summer, Texans have become accustomed to adjusting their routines to avoid the worst of the heat and the poor air quality that often follows it.
Now, a team at the University of North Texas wants to study the specific ways that extreme heat forces changes to people’s social behaviors and decision making.
The North Texas Heat Research Project was born after Courtney Cecale, an anthropology professor who typically studies climate change in mountainous areas, spent her first summer in the region. She noticed difficulties with concentration and continuing to work as temperatures rose past 100 degrees.
While other academic studies have focused on how extreme heat affects people’s health and safety, leading to thousands of preventable deaths each year, Cecale’s team has a different purpose, she said.
“Our study is one of the first of its kind,” Cecale said. “We’re really hoping to better understand how the heat impacts things like social relationships, how people make decisions about their daily lives, whether or not they’re effective or efficient at work.”
Their first step? Talking with North Texans about how they experience heat, whether that’s through finding air-conditioned spaces to escape dangerous temperatures at home or changing workout routines from outdoor runs to treadmills at the gym.
Cecale and her research assistant Gabriela Gutierrez have set up an online survey at bit.ly/NTXHeat, asking participants to identify how heat affects their sleep habits, productivity, mood and health. North Texans can also describe their memories of sweltering summers and how their experiences have changed over time.
“We’re also looking at ways that people have come up with to cope with heat, both collectively and through different technologies,” Gutierrez said. “That includes resource sharing and efforts from faith-led organizations and community groups working to share water, provide mutual aid and operate cooling stations in cities.”
Extreme heat, defined by scientists as temperatures of 90 degrees or higher over the span of two or more days, has long been a reality for North Texans. Dallas averages more than 60 dangerous heat days per year, and Cecale said that number is expected to nearly double by 2050.
The impact is felt unevenly across income levels and other demographic measurements, she said.
Agricultural workers are exposed to health risks that people working from home in air-conditioning don’t face on a daily basis. Folks living in the suburbs or rural areas are less likely to experience the urban heat island effect, when the combination of higher populations and dense concentrations of concrete increases temperatures, energy costs and air pollution levels.
“You can already see how the design of cities will impact who’s going to be more affected and exposed to this type of dangerous heat,” Cecale said. “When you start to look at income demographics, the really high (temperature) areas are typically areas where it’s lower income, fewer resources and you can see how these things are compounding one another.”
Cecale is hoping to reach underserved communities through partnering with advocacy organizations already concerned with air pollution and environmental justice issues, including the activist group Downwinders at Risk and neighborhood coalition West Dallas1.
In addition to collecting survey responses, Cecale is conducting longer virtual interviews with Texans about how heat has impacted their physical and mental selves. Identifiable information will be removed from the final research paper to protect identities, according to the research website.
The research project will last anywhere from three to five years, and take place mostly during the summer months when extreme heat is felt most acutely by North Texans, Cecale said.
Next year, her team will launch its second phase of research: a citizen science effort where community members across the Metroplex will collect temperature data in their neighborhoods, particularly in areas they know to be hotspots.
“When you’re looking at your phone, it may say it’s 90 degrees in your area and provide that kind of aggregate data,” Cecale said. “But it might be hotter by your house … and sometimes it’s something as simple as surface temperatures in your car, or waiting at a bus stop, or touching something that can give you a burn.”
Citizen scientist volunteers will receive free portable atmospheric thermometers or surface temperature thermometers to help the UNT researchers understand where and how people are encountering heat.
Cecale envisions using the data collected each summer to inform a set of policy recommendations for government officials tasked with addressing the impact of rising temperatures. For instance, cities often offer financial assistance to help some citizens pay for air-conditioning expenses, but Cecale’s data could provide a blueprint for how those programs could be expanded.
Somewhere down the line, she hopes to answer the question of how urban infrastructure and city resources can be used to solve issues caused by blistering heat — a problem that will only grow in scale across North Texas, according to Cecale.
“This is often treated like such an individual problem, but if people have the same issue, then it’s not particular to that one individual,” Cecale said. “I want to come up with these recommendations and bring them back to the communities that participated to comment on them as well. We can’t think about these things in the dark — we need the community’s input to think it through.”