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UTSA and SwRI partner to study urban heat island effect on San Antonio's West Side

Picture of the front sign of the Southwest Research Institute, a brick and stone column with the logo "SwRI" partially inside an oval. The sign is surrounded by grass and a tree stands in the forefront on the left of the picture.
Courtesy photo
Southwest Research Institute
The front gate sign at Southwest Research Institute.

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Researchers from UTSA and Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) have partnered to study the impact the urban heat island effect has on the West Side over the next year.

The urban heat island effect is the concept that in urban areas with a high density of concrete and asphalt and few spots of greenery and shade, heat absorbs into and radiates from hard surfaces, which can noticeably raise the area’s temperature.

With San Antonio’s most recent blistering summer and the threat of climbing temperatures due to climate change, researchers want to better understand how to lower temperatures in cities, and in neighborhoods like the West Side. That starts with understanding what the temperatures actually are, which is what UTSA and SwRI researchers plan to do.

Esteban Lopez Ochoa, an assistant professor in the Department of Engineering and Integrated Design at the University of Texas at San Antonio, said much of San Antonio deals with the urban heat island effect to varying degrees, but that the problem is considerable in the West Side.

“This is an area that’s been neglected from public investment for years, and we have different studies going with the City of San Antonio currently to tell them where are the heat islands, what neighborhoods are experiencing disproportional heat, but there’s a research gap,” he explained.

That research gap is the fact that most of these studies use ground temperature readings from satellites, which is different from air temperature. To do that, Lopez Ochoa will lead the on-the-ground data collection effort, using temperature sensors to measure heat levels in different conditions and locations across the West Side.

“We’ll be deploying an array of sensors across the West Side,” he said. “We’re very closely working with the Historic Westside Neighborhood Association, and we’re going to be walking through the neighborhood to find specific homes to host indoor and outdoor temperature and air quality sensors.”

He said they’ll also place sensors in areas that have vegetation coverage to get a full picture of heat differences in this one part of San Antonio and begin measurements in January.

Lopez Ochoa’s colleague at SwRI, principal scientist in the institute’s Chemistry and Chemical Engineering Division Stuart Stothoff, will collect satellite data and then analyze all of the data together once they’re finished collecting information next August.

“I will have a model that does an energy balance, that takes the meteorological data and combines these observations so that I can get a good estimate of what kind of temperatures and conditions people all across the neighborhood would feel,” Stothoff said. “Under a tree, if they’re out in the open, and so forth.”

The focus is on the West Side, but Lopez Ochoa said they plan to expand from here and use the West Side’s data as a map to understand how San Antonio can mitigate heat islands throughout the entire city.

He added that they aren’t sure what recommendations to mitigate heat effects might come from the research, but that effective mitigation tactics can’t happen until they understand what they’re facing.

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