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Heat Waves and the Future: How cities are preparing for scorching temps

Full Circle: Adapting to Extreme Heat
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Posted at 5:49 AM, Aug 11, 2022
and last updated 2022-08-11 19:07:29-04

TAMPA, Fla. — The mercury is rising, and record high temperatures are getting broken in Tampa almost daily.

The never-ending heat, humidity, and dangerously high heat indices have city and county leaders working to find solutions to cool urban heat islands and keep people safe.

We know summers in Florida are hot. But, scientists tell ABC Action News reporter Michael Paluska that the impacts of climate change will impact Floridians this year and for years to come. Especially urban heat islands.

Heat Islands as defined byEnvironmental Protection Agency:

Heat islands are urbanized areas that experience higher temperatures than outlying areas. Structures such as buildings, roads, and other infrastructure absorb and re-emit the sun's heat more than natural landscapes such as forests and water bodies. Urban areas, where these structures are highly concentrated, and greenery is limited, become "islands" of higher temperatures relative to outlying areas. Daytime temperatures in urban areas are about 1–7°F higher than in outlying areas, and nighttime temperatures are about 2-5°F higher.

Tampa has never reached a temperature of 100 degrees. So far, 99 is our highest recorded temperature. Afternoon storms and a sea breeze from both coasts help keep us cooler than most parts of the country. But, meteorologists are concerned about a significant shift in temperature.

For perspective, ABC Action News meteorologist Jason Adams compiled a list of information showing that last month was the hottest month (of all months) on record and the hottest July on record in Tampa, with records going back to 1890. July 2022 also saw the warmest average low temperature on record in Tampa, and this year Tampa is on track to have the hottest year on record. Eight of the top 10 hottest months on record have occurred in Tampa since 2011.

Leaders across the Tampa Bay region have taken notice and are working on resiliency programs to adapt and save lives.

"Biggest worry is that we can't do enough soon enough; resources are always limited. So we're going to have to be strategic about how we spend those resources. So, in the city's affordable housing and rehabilitation programs, how can we help residents focus on improvements that are going to keep their homes cooler? What can we do to make sure that we're educating people on the importance of that and doing what we can so that we can reduce the risk in the future," Taryn Sabia, Research Associate Professor at USF, said.


"What we're seeing with climate change now is a nice slow, gradual trend of warming temperatures that are going to impact the way we live here in Florida," Daniel Noah, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said. "And, 50 years from now, we're not going to live the same way we are right now. Fifty years from now, we are going to — it's going to be warmer, so we're going to have to deal with that heat."

There is a big difference in temperatures near natural vegetation, shade, and urban areas.

"If we are forecasting a heating index of 105, that's in the shade. If you're out of the shade, you have to add 15 degrees to that. So, if you're in full sun, add 15 degrees. If you're in downtown Tampa, add some more degrees because now you've got the heat urban island effect. And it just makes it hot. Our heat index in the summertime ranges from 100 to 105, most every day. But with our warming temperatures, we're going to start to see more of 105 to 110."

"Does this shock you at all about how fast it is warming?" Paluska asked.

"It's gonna get faster usually; it kind of starts out slow that people don't really notice it, and then all of a sudden it starts to change exponentially, and when it starts to do that, I'm going to get nervous," Noah said.

Climate change is also putting Floridians at ground zero for something else; sea level rise and stronger hurricanes.

"Our water levels have gone up nine inches over the last 100 years, and they will continue to rise," Noah said. "So heat, while it kills the most people across the United States, it's not what scares me the most. In Florida, it's still the hurricanes and anything to do with water; storm surge flooding or heavy rain flooding. Water makes me very nervous."

Read the report about climate change published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Watch our Full Circle report on adapting cattle and crops to the heat.


Cutting back carbon dioxide emissions is the first step, albeit challenging, as the world weans itself off fossil fuels. One of the best and easiest options is to plant more trees and protect our forests.

Take the tree survey.

There are more than a million trees across Tampa.

"They're bringing in oxygen; they're bringing in oxygen on a level where if you have a large enough forested area, it can function as the lungs of the city," Brian Knox, Senior Forester Examiner for the City of Tampa, said.

In 2019, MIT listed Tampa as having the best tree canopy cover of 27 international cities, coming in at 36.1%

The City of Tampa and Hillsborough County have teamed up to study urban forests' impacts on heat islands and are in the middle of a new study.

"So, in this study, we're focusing on heat islands. And so, if we're comparing our heat with this cooling study, we can get an overall general picture of what and where trees are needed in the city of Tampa," Brian Knox, Senior Forester Examiner in the City of Tampa Planning Department, said.

Knox and Ross Dickerson, the Division Manager for the Hillsborough County Conservation and Environmental Lands Management Department, took us on a walk in the woods to see the study up-close and explain the benefits of our urban forests.

"We just did an ecosystem services study a couple of years ago. And it found that the lands purchased through the program provide just under $100 million of ecosystem services to the citizens every year," Dickerson said. "So that's carbon sequestration, water filtration, oxygen production, and flood protection. So these lands, which we spent about $300 million on, have a return on investment of about three years."

Knox and Dickerson installed sensors in urban forests across Hillsborough County. The sensors are part of the Forests in Cities program that twelve other cities are participating in.

They showed us three sensors in the Rocky Creek Trails Nature Preserve. One is a control sensor, another in a natural part of the forest, and a third in a forest considered degraded because it contains invasive plant species.

"We wanted to be part of this network to help people understand the effects when developments start to surround nature preserves," Dickerson said. "We're gonna have data that shows, in addition to all other ecosystems services, how trees help cool the Earth, and why it's important to have them because it does help even in city landscapes small patches of trees do provide cooling effects to heat islands."


According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heat kills on average 702 people in the United States annually. It is the number one weather-related killer — more than hurricanes, floods, and tornadoes.

In a recent study by The Lancet Planetary Health, more than 5 million people die yearly from extreme heat.

"Heat-related illness is a spectrum with things like heat cramps, heat syncope, or passing out and fainting, climbing up to heat exhaustion, alright, which is a little bit more of a dehydration, a cardiac issue, a heart problem," Dr. Jose Barquin an emergency room doctor at AdventHealth North Pinellas and Palm Harbor said. "And at the end of the spectrum, heatstroke is very dangerous. And that's when you now have neurologic symptoms. So agitation, aggression, confusion, slurred speech, coma, and seizures. So that's the dangerous portion of the heat-related illness."

Drinking water isn't enough to protect from heat exhaustion or heat stroke.

"A lot of folks say, 'oh, I'm drinking plenty of water.' Well, first off, you gotta make sure to have electrolytes; if athletes are out there drinking lots of water, but they're sweating, and that has all the salts in it and the sodium. So, if you're not replacing the sodium, you're drinking lots of water, you're losing sodium from your skin, then you dilute down the sodium, and you start to, you know, your sodium level drops, and then you start to cramp, you can pass out, and that's its own process. So you make a point when you say water. It's important that we hydrate with more than just water and use electrolytes."

Heat exhaustion and heat stroke are not the same. Heat stroke is when your body becomes dangerously hot, leading to severe medical issues and, if not treated, sometimes death.

"The diagnosis of heat stroke is usually defined as body core body temperature of more than 104 degrees. After 104, your organs start to become dysfunctional," Dr. Barquin said. "That's what prompts you to move quickly here because the longer you remain with that elevated core body temperature, the more damage there is to organs and the central nervous system in the brain. So if you see somebody who you feel is under threat of heat illness, they're collapsed on the ground, number one, take them into the shade, get them out of that direct sunlight, lift their legs to get the blood flowing back to the body, and then start cooling them in any way you have. So first, you start putting water on them if you can, wet towels, fanning is important too to help kind of precipitate the evaporation makes it a little bit more expedient."


Leaders from Tampa to St. Petersburg are working to find solutions and adapt to our changing climate.

"Heat is one of the greatest climate hazard risks that we see in terms of population-related deaths," Sabia said. "We know our vulnerable populations and lower-income families are more at risk and disproportionately at risk to heat and other climate hazards."

Sabia said educating the public and local leaders about the science and data of climate change is a first step in the right direction.

"We're going to look at the parks and recreation master plan. So what can we do through our community, neighborhood, and city parks to help deal with heat? Also, we're going to look at our urban forestry management plan," Sabia said.

"So, how do we plan to ensure that we're not only planting trees for the canopy but also addressing pollution and stormwater? But, also through the considerations of heat and energy burden to again reduce those greenhouse gases, to be able to reduce effects of heat islands, and to be able to help reduce our carbon footprint overall in the city," Sabia continued.

"We like to call it Tampa's quest for shade, right? We're all looking for shade. If you look throughout parking lots, you will see every car parked next to trees because everyone is always in search of shade. And as we create more walkable neighborhoods, we're trying to improve the quality of life in and around the urban neighborhoods. Throughout the city, we want it to be comfortable for people to be able to walk to ride bikes, to not always have to get in a car."

In St. Pete, there is a focus on creating electrical vehicle charging hubs in low-income areas and targeting locations for resiliency hubs. Places where residents can go to cool off, work, and get access to programs that enrich their lives.

"Resilience can mean different things in different neighborhoods," Sharon Wright, the Sustainability and Resilience Officer for the City of St. Petersburg, said. "We've done our first canopy analysis in the city. So we know what sort of percentage cover we have, we can work towards increasing goals from there. And that can be very site-specific and neighborhood-specific. Obviously, it's going to be easier to invest in trees, sometimes in a more residential neighborhood than downtown."

Becoming resilient and adapting to climate change isn't easy. The city of St. Petersburg's website looks at environmental compliance, green building, plans and policies, solar, tree maintenance, urban agriculture, waste reduction, and water conservation. With programs targeting low-income areas more vulnerable to climate change.

"Similarly, the healthier a vulnerable neighborhood is, the more economically sustainable they are, the more resilient they are. So we think about resilience across the board as well. Because if you're already struggling day to day, when there's a shock, like a hurricane or a pandemic, it can be much harder to get back to where you were," Wright said. "I refer to it as climate justice, the fact that we have to make these investments related to climate effects, how can we use that to catch up where we were behind an investment in those communities."

With many people across the Tampa region working together and teaming up with experts across the United States, we have solutions to challenging problems.

"I'm optimistic because I do feel that the majority of people on the planet Earth understand the benefits of nature," Dickerson said. "And, as we continue to quantify it and show people that it's not just nice to have nature, there are real benefits to go with it. I think it will continue to catch on, and more people will be proactive at preserving or restoring land that was disturbed by other activities."