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Researchers map heat inequities in Knoxville, finding higher temperatures in lower-income areas

It's sweltering in East Tennessee, but it turns out some people in Knoxville's lower-income communities feel the heat more.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — It's sweltering in East Tennessee, but it turns out some people in Knoxville feel the heat more than others. 

Researchers are conducting a heat-mapping campaign that will pinpoint urban heat islands in Knoxville and across the U.S. A heat island is a place where people may experience excessive heat. 

Through this research, researchers at the University of Tennessee are working to raise awareness of what is called 'heat inequities.'

Knoxville is one of 14 cities that participated in the 2022 Heat Mapping Campaign supported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

"We experience what is known as 'urban heat island,'” said Jennifer First, a professor of social work and researcher in the project. “Places, where buildings and pavement or other urban environments are, can trap that heat, and it stays overnight and so certain parts of our city are hotter."

First said in August, a group of volunteers will ride around Knoxville using heat sensors mounted on cars. They will drive through neighborhoods to map areas where excessive heat may occur. 

"So what this really shows is that the people who are being impacted the most in our cities, and who faced the highest risk for heat-related illness, are already experiencing other burdens, like energy burdens,” she said. 

First says they've already seen heat inequalities in the city on Broadway and in Western Heights, where many people live in affordable housing complexes and a large number of unsheltered people also live.

Data from the NOAA shows that the hottest areas are often where low-income families live. 

"So I would say our biggest goal in this is to collect the data and to be able to share it again to individuals who will hopefully make changes and give recommendations," said First.

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