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Reno is home to urban heat islands that affect life and work

A graphic that shows Reno is a heat island with a 5.4 intensity score
Climate Central

Reno’s downtown and urban streetscapes are heat islands, affecting everyone who lives and works there, including the Latino community.

In Reno, areas like downtown can be some of the hottest places in the city during the warmer months. This effect is known as an urban heat island. According to Nevada State Climatologist, Steph McAfee, heat islands are areas that are significantly warmer than surrounding regions. Urban heat islands generally occur in cities, and surrounding areas like suburbs tend to remain cooler.

“If you think about someplace that is sort of a similar elevation and would otherwise be like the city, except it just happens to be suburban or rural, those places are normally going to be cooler than right in the center of the city,” she said.

Vegetation helps keep these suburban and rural areas cool and significantly reduces heat just by existing in these places.

“Vegetation is really good at helping cool things down, both because it provides shade and because when trees and other plants suck up water and then they transpire it and evaporates out of their leaves, it kind of works like an evaporative or swamp cooler does,” McAfee said.

Highly urban areas, like city centers, tend to get much hotter due to a lack of vegetation and certain infrastructure choices. Dark materials used for streets and buildings attract more heat. This means that city centers tend to be 15 to 20 degrees hotter than outlying areas, exposing people who live in heat islands to health risks like heatstroke and even death during extreme heat waves. It also means they don’t cool off as much as they should at night.

“If you think about, like, asphalt or brick, they absorb a lot of sunshine during the day and then radiate out that heat at night,” said McAfee.

According to data from the Hispanic Access Foundation, Latinos are 21% more likely to live in urban heat islands than white people. And roughly 40% of Latino households aren’t energy secure, meaning Latinos live in hotter areas with fewer options to stay cool. Latinos also tend to work outside more, making them more vulnerable to heat related illnesses or injuries while on the job.

Downtown Reno Ambassador, José Manzo-Rodríguez, works long hours outside in the heat, helping to clean up and keep downtown safe. He deals with the heat by staying hydrated and taking breaks when he gets too hot.

“When I start feeling a little heated, I just find a place where I can go inside and chill for a minute. Or I come back to base and you know, take an extra break if we have to,” he said.

Manzo-Rodríguez normally uses a vehicle to patrol the downtown area, but being outside can get hot very fast.

“It can get really hot, especially if you're walking,” he said.

In the wake of extreme heat waves, policymakers are putting forth bills that would make it safer for people to work in extreme heat. Senator Catherine Cortez-Masto has helped to push for a bill that would require stricter safety measures in extreme heat, and urging OSHA to set federal standards that would protect people who work outdoors. She believes it’s important to protect workers from extreme heat.

“Not only standards to protect them from that excess extreme heat, but also standards that their employers have to follow to ensure we're providing comfort for individuals in this extreme heat to prevent them from overheating,” she said.

With a disproportionate amount of Latinos working in agriculture, construction, manufacturing, and utilities, this would help to provide better working conditions for Latinos in particular.

Outside of work environments, communities can take steps to protect themselves from extreme heat, said McAfee. In cases where air conditioning isn’t readily available, there are still options to stay cool.

“Try to cool your house the old fashioned way. Keep open windows at night when it's cool, but then during the day, close those windows and pull drapes and drapes or other window coverings. Try and keep it as cool inside as possible,” McAfee said.

It’s critical to remember that, even though this year’s heat hasn’t been as bad as previous years, it’s important to remain aware of extreme heat outside the summer months.

“Last year we had a big heat wave in the beginning of September. So people should kind of keep in mind some of these heat safety tips for at least another month or so," she said.

McAfee warns against thinking that summer and extreme temperatures are over, and urges people to be prepared to change their schedules to avoid extreme temperatures during the day if possible.

Sophia Holm is an environmental student reporter for Noticiero Móvil and KUNR.

Sophia Holm (she/her) is a Lake Tahoe resident with a deep passion for nature and an even stronger love for storytelling. She strives to provide KUNR’s listening region with strong stories about climate news, issues, and solutions as the station’s Summer 2023 Mick Hitchcock, Ph.D., Project for Visualizing Science Intern.
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