For Kelsey Ellis, solving big problems is all about thinking small. It’s why her research team at the University of Tennessee installed sensors across Knoxville to monitor weather conditions.

“Right now we have 10 sensors up, and they’ve been up for almost two years now,” said Ellis, an assistant professor of geography at UT.

The sensors gather air temperature, humidity, wind speed – even soil moisture in some cases. They’ve been installed from Gay St. to West Hills, Ijams Nature Center to Lonsdale. Ellis said it allows them to see how landscape and structures impact weather conditions on the ground.

Someday, she hopes it might allow people to easily get pinpoint weather data on their phones – with two major impacts.

Kelsey Ellis, an assistant professor of geography at UT.
Kelsey Ellis, an assistant professor of geography at UT.

"We really hope it will help with vulnerability issues,” said Ellis. “Obviously the temperature and air pollution are different all across Knoxville, so we hope people could access their local information and figure out how to keep themselves safe in extreme heat or ozone exposure, things like that. And – for planners and other policy makers.”

Ellis began the project looking to find out how trees affect neighborhood climates. She theorized that poorer neighborhoods with less vegetation might leave residents exposed to more extreme heat. Their preliminary data found that neighborhoods with less trees were in fact warmer.

It’s a unique opportunity for them to study such distinct areas, also known as microclimates.

“I think it’s a great idea,” said WBIR 10News Chief Meteorologist Todd Howell. “To have those sensors spread out across areas – basically, the more data, the better the end product.”

Howell said in just a few miles, temperature can vary greatly.

“You'll be able to see the microclimates that are all over – there are urban heat islands in the city, but you get a little outside into some rural areas, some countryside, you'll notice some cooler temps,” Howell said.

Ellis has been working in partnership with Jon Hathaway, an assistant professor in the department of civil and environmental engineering, and Drew Howe, a graduate student in environmental engineering.

Howe helped collect data and maintain the sensors. He said it’s been rewarding.

“A lot of research that’s done on the academic level, while important, doesn’t really have a broader appeal to the public,” said Howe. “I think the fact that we’re involving the college of social work and looking at it from a social justice side of things is definitely appealing.”

The group is looking to secure more funding from the National Science Foundation, which an eye on taking the project nationwide. They’d also like to have an app for residents to access real-time data.

“What we’re finding out is that maybe more valuable than the raw data is when we can take that and process it into something useful,” said Hathaway.

Hathaway said with their data in hand, city planners might be able to better design urban areas with a fresh perspective.

“From a development standpoint,” said Hathaway. “How can we develop cities and neighborhoods that are functioning better in terms of climates?”