Researching Climate Variables on Campus

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Haley GaughanMy name is Haley Gaughan, and I’m a sophomore here at Wheelock College. This semester, I was given the opportunity to work as an honors research assistant for Professor Lisa Lobel. We’re researching climate variables related to the green roof on top of the campus center, the asphalt roof of the library, and the Muddy River across the street. We’ll be collecting data for each area, including temperature, relative humidity, soil moisture and more.

Our equipment will be stationed around campus. Soon, you may spot our weather stations on the roof of the campus center, some of our solar radiation shields on the side of buildings, or some of the soil moisture sensors poking out by the Muddy River. They are just there to help us collect information. We are looking forward to sharing our findings with you, and we hope that the data will help us to become a greener, environmental-friendly campus.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, temperatures in U.S. cities can be as much as 10 degrees Fahrenheit higher than surrounding areas. Although a few degrees may not seem like much, it makes a big difference. It leads to higher demand for air conditioning, leading to higher energy bills and higher greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. It also leads to higher heat-related deaths. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration states that heat kills more people than tornadoes, hurricanes, floods and lightning combined.

So what does this have to do with our cities? If you take a look around, you’ll notice that a lot of the buildings have dark surfaces and are erected on asphalt pavement. This means that both the buildings and the pavement absorb a lot of light and emit it as heat. This is especially important because the asphalt used in cities reflects radiation really poorly, absorbing the majority of it instead. So, cities hold on to this heat for longer periods of time.

This also has to do with the lack of vegetation. As bad as asphalt and buildings are at reflecting light, it’s even worse without vegetation. Vegetative areas go through evaporative cooling; plants absorb water through their roots, then dry air absorbs the excess water and turns it into water vapor. The air provides the heat that drives this process, so during the process, the air loses heat and becomes cooler. It’s a lot like perspiration – air absorbs the moisture of sweat on your skin and cools the air around you. This isn’t all, though. Cities have an excess amount of cars and plenty of air conditioners, both of which convert energy to heat and release it into the air. Combine this with little vegetation and lots of asphalt, and it’s a perfect storm: cities lose evaporative cooling, gain surfaces and technology that release even more heat.

This is where Wheelock comes in. Our campus is located right in the heart of the Fenway district, but not too far from the Emerald Necklace. It’s the best of both worlds, making it a great spot to research the urban heat island effect. The library has an asphalt roof, meaning that it is one of the surfaces that absorbs a lot more light than it reflects. The campus center, on the other hand, has a green roof. The green roof has plants and vegetation for evaporative cooling, which prevents the building from absorbing heat while also cooling the air around it. We have decided to place a weather station on each roof, which will collect data regarding temperature, wind speed, and more, and compare them. We will be placing equipment around the Muddy River, as well, and will compare this data to that of each roof.

The good news is that since we know so much about the urban heat island effect, we can do a lot to control it. We hope that through our research, we can see just how our campus contributes to the urban heat island effect and can take the right steps towards minimizing it.

The research findings will be shared at the 2016 Student Research Symposium and the Muddy River Symposium.