What are heat islands and how do they affect New Bedford and area towns?

NEW BEDFORD — Across from Serenity Gardens, Buddy Andrade sat in the shade created by the trees in front of the Old Bedford Village Development Corporation on Bedford Street, when multiple fire engines raced by on Pleasant Street.

"This is an all-day occurrence," Andrade, the corporation's director, said. "It's an older neighborhood now ... So, we have a lot of [health] problems.

"Heat and housing helped trigger a lot of the issues we're talking about."

There are many factors aggravating those, he said. But one of them is that of heat island.

Heat islands, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, are urbanized areas that experience higher temperatures than the outlying areas. These densely populated zones are full of buildings, pavements, and other surfaces that absorb and re-emit heat with little to no tree cover. This causes temperatures to rise several degrees higher than greener spaces nearby.

The results for those living in those areas is not only uncomfortable, but often more costly and harmful.

Looking into heat islands

A USA Today Network reporting project called “Perilous Course” looked at heat islands, with journalists from more than 30 newsrooms from New Hampshire to Florida looking into the real-life affects, digging into the science and investigating government response, or lack of it.

Climate change has exacerbated the intensity of heat waves, the number of excessive heat days per year and the length of these heat waves. The average length of a heat wave season in 50 big cities studied is now around 70 days, compared to 20 days back in the 1960s. In less than one lifetime, the heat wave season has tripled.

Unbearable heat: We created scorching 'heat islands' in East Coast cities. Now they're becoming unlivable

Buddy Andrade, director of Old Bedford Village Development Corporation in New Bedford, sits in the shade outside his office. Andrade's neighborhood is what the Environmental Protection Agency calls a 'heat Island."
Buddy Andrade, director of Old Bedford Village Development Corporation in New Bedford, sits in the shade outside his office. Andrade's neighborhood is what the Environmental Protection Agency calls a 'heat Island."

What about New Bedford?

Eric Andrade, the community, systems, and climate director at Groundworks SouthCoast, said it's not difficult to find a heat island in the whaling city.

"Most of New Bedford is a heat island," he said.

He said there is more to it than just having to tolerate high temperatures, which average at 84 degrees.

"If you look at Precinct 2A, that precinct's average temperature is 100 degrees," he said.

Indeed the North End of the city appears to be the worst effected. On Aug. 4, the Standard-Times visited multiple locations in New Bedford, Fairhaven, and Dartmouth to take temperature readings in the afternoon.

The following were taken with a thermometer held at shoulder height for 15 minutes:

  • The neighborhood surrounding the intersection of Acushnet Avenue and Holly Street is characterized by asphalt, concrete sidewalks, houses and businesses built of various materials, and a municipal parking lot. Tree cover is minimal and the high volume of traffic contributes to both air pollution and temperatures. The average air temperature in the city was 89 degrees. Air temperature: 93.9 degrees in full sun.

  • Near Brooklawn Park, at the intersection of Acushnet Avenue and Emerson Street, the tree cover is less than the previous neighborhood. More buildings are clearly built out of absorbent materials such as concrete and shorter - meaning less shade. Other aggravating factors include the high traffic on Acushnet Avenue. Air temperature: 92.7 degrees in full sun.

  • Alden Road in Fairhaven is major highway with high traffic running through a middle-class suburban neighborhood. Though the highway runs through the area and there are concrete sidewalks, the land surrounding consists of lawns, greater space between homes, and trees. The average air temperature in Fairhaven that day was 87 degrees. Air temperature: 89.8 degrees in partial sun.

  • Temple Landing, former site of United Front, is a public housing complex on Kempton Street, also known as Route 6, a highly trafficked area that leads to the New Bedford-Fairhaven Bridge. Though there is plenty of lawn at Temple Landing proper, the surrounding area is mostly asphalt and concrete. Air temperature: 95 degrees in full shade.

  • Davol's General Store sits in a residential neighborhood in South Dartmouth. It is characterized by large amounts of tree cover and other greenery, protecting those surfaces not made of grass from exposure to sunlight. Relatively low amounts of traffic also contribute to the areas calming environment. The average air temperature in Dartmouth was 87 degrees. Air temperature: 87.6 degrees in near full shade.

Why are heat islands a concern?

For many looking to escape the heat, going home and turning on the air conditioner may seem like a sensible option. That comes with costs — especially for the mostly low-income populations where heat islands tend to be present.

"[The temperature differential] is the difference between having your AC on or off," Andrade said. "If you're lucky enough to have an AC."

This can lead to higher energy expenditures for those who can least afford it.

The median energy burden — the percentage of income spent on home energy costs — for low-income families is 8.1%, while the national median is 3.1%, according to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

Of course, the heat also makes people want to stay inside, and thus more sedentary, leading to greater instances of health problems, according to Andrade, leading to higher rates of obesity and other related health consequences.

A recent report on the issue by Groundworks SouthCoast included a map using data from the Centers for Disease Control and Management to demonstrate the correlation.

"You see almost the same track of deep red (hotter) and deep brown (higher prevalence of that disease/condition) running along the eastern edge of the City," he said in an email.

The map shows that in many of the city's hottest districts, obesity rates can hit 32% of the adult population and greater. In Acushnet, Dartmouth, and Fairhaven, rates don't exceed that level.

Asthma rates - for which heat, pollution, and obesity are aggravating factors can hit 12% and greater, with the inverse being true for surrounding towns.


Andrade was careful to say that low-income is not necessarily the cause of heat islands, but that context is important in causing it.

"The neighborhood's not hot because people are low-income, it's hot because it was designed that way a hundred years ago," he said. "It's the way that our cities and towns are designed are often the places that are hotter are the places where people live don't have the funds and means don't get out of those spaces."

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The North End is particularly vulnerable since it began as a mill district where new workers - many new immigrants - would move to be near work into housing that was often owned by the factories.

What to do about it?

President Joe Biden recently announced a series of measures related to climate change during his recent visit to Somerset, and one of them was expanding LIHEAP to cover cooling costs as well. But it’s unclear if Biden's announcement has made it past the planning stage into providing actual money to people who need it.

Locally, the New Bedford Resilient program includes as one of its goals the creation of an urban reforestation plan.

For Buddy Andrade though, the secret lies in education.

"The whole thing of this heat island stuff is that people need to pay attention with it," he said. "And they need to get educated about it."

See the details: Take a look inside Fairhaven's new Oxford School apartments.

An expanded cooling shelter program would also alleviate the pressures for many.

Nonetheless, he said that many who live in New Bedford's heat islands have to pay attention to issues of poverty, immigration, and immediate health needs to make heat islands priorities.

"Do they really care about how hot it is? Or of how the tar breaks up and starts melting? When they've got all these other issues they've got to deal with?" Andrade said. "That's a hell of a point to make: What would you people want concern with getting the food or not getting the food?"

USA Today Network reporters Joyce Chu, Eduardo Cuevas, Eduardo Aguilar and Ashley R. Williams, and Herald News reporter Dan Medeiros contributed material to this story.

Contact Kevin G. Andrade at kandrade@s-t.com and follow him on Twitter: @KevinGAndrade. Support local journalism and subscribe to the Standard-Times today!

This article originally appeared on Standard-Times: What are heat islands and how do the effect the SouthCoast?