Indianapolis is one of 12 cities participating in an urban temperature study aimed at determining what type of natural and built environments work best to cool cities off.
Currently, ecologists from the Indianapolis Office of Land Stewardship are participating in a study conducted by the Natural Areas Conservancy to see how the health of an ecosystem influences temperatures. Sensors have been placed in parks across the city with healthy forests, degraded woods or developed sites to record temperatures. Researchers will also use satellite data to quantify differences.
Locations include Eagle Creek Park, Marott Park, and Paul Ruster Park.
It is known that trees and greenspaces help to reduce the urban heat island effect -- the increase of heat when you replace the green environment with city structures. Studies in New York City, for instance, have found that natural areas in the city are at least 8 degrees fahrenheit cooler than city averages.
The question of how best to cool the city is an important one given the growing impact of climate change on extreme heat.
Indianapolis projected that by 2050 average summer temperatures will increase from 3 to 9 degrees fahrenheit. City temperatures can also vary by as much as 15 degrees depending on the neighborhood.
In 2019, the city launched a sustainability plan which identified, in general, that many of the city’s most socially vulnerable neighborhoods were ones that also saw higher maximum daily temperatures and less tree cover.
Because of that, Morgan Mickelson, director of sustainability with the city of Indianapolis, said many of the city’s vulnerable communities will see a greater impact from increasing temperatures.
“So one of the areas that we know we can mitigate the impacts here is by planting trees,” she said.
Mickelson said the study will be important for finding the best ways to cool the city and help reduce heat related deaths and illnesses.
“It could be very impactful if they are able to – this small but mighty team – is able to make an impact on one of the leading impacts for weather related deaths in the United States.”
Because of the city’s existing work comparing surface temperatures and tree canopy, officials say they already have some expectation of what the study might find.
Lindsay Trameri is with the Indianapolis Office of Sustainability. She said it wouldn’t be surprising if robust tree cover helps cool the city.
“A healthy ecosystem, you would predict, you would hypothesize, would have a better cooling effect than an unhealthy ecosystem,” she said.
Brenda Howard, senior ecologist for Indianapolis Land Stewardship, said in a statement that the research will continue to be relevant.
"With urbanization only increasing and cities projected to house close to 90 percent of the U.S. population by 2050, it is imperative that we find answers to managing the impacts of the changing climate,” Howard said.
The study is underway, and data is expected to be finalized this winter.