Portlanders sweat through another steamy summer in one of nation's top 'heat islands'

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Vivek Shandas, associate professor at PSUs Toulan School of Urban Studies and Planning, hangs out with his son, Suhail, at the water fountain at Essex Park in Southeast Portland. Shandas is leading an effort to study and combat Portlands urban heat island problem.  So long, hot summer.

For the past three months, it seems, Portlanders have been sweating, flocking to the coast and cranking up the air conditioning.

It wasn’t our hottest summer on record, but close. It was the third hottest summer since 1940, after scorchers in 2009 and 2004.

Just before Labor Day weekend brought a bit of rain and cooler temperatures, Portland had seen 16 days of 90-degree-or-higher temperatures this June, July and August, compared with an average of 12 days per year.

(Hillsboro had 19 days of 90-plus degree temperatures; McMinnville had 24; Corvallis 23; Salem 25, and Eugene a whopping 28.)

Portland also is approaching a record for nighttime temperatures, with 40 nights at or above 60 degrees. The all-time record is 44 nights, set last year.

It’s not just a fluke.

“It’s well understood that the impermeable surfaces store up heat and release it at night, driving up temperatures,” says Alyson Kenward, a senior scientist and researcher at Climate Central, a nonprofit news organization that studies climate change. “There are more people, more cars, more industry in cities.”

It all adds up to a phenomenon called an “urban heat island” — first named in the 1970s and just coming onto the public’s radar in the past five years.

An Aug. 20 report from Climate Central helped put it on our radar, calling Portland out as the city with the fourth-largest urban heat island index in the United States. That’s to say Portland, as a metropolitan area, is significantly hotter than its rural areas, due to our industrious activities.

Portland’s urban-rural divide is 7.8 degrees, just behind Las Vegas,

Albuquerque and Denver. Seattle, which ranked No. 10, was the only other Pacific Northwest city of the 60 surveyed.

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Vivek Shandas of PSU is studying ways to combat the 'urban heat island' problem.Vivek Shandas, an associate professor at Portland State University’s Toulan School of Urban Studies and Planning, has spent years examining the dangers of urban heat islands.

He wasn’t surprised by the ranking, knowing that Portland — despite its green reputation — has a lot to do to combat the legacy of blacktop development that covers the landscape.

“We have all these black roofs; we have to attempt to lighten the roofs,” he says. Other mitigation strategies are to extend the tree canopies in neighborhoods, or to do something as simple as install “cooling stations” for people in case of extreme temperatures.

While tornadoes, hurricanes, floods and earthquakes are front-page news, Shandas says that devastating heat waves — like the infamous 1995 Chicago event that killed 750 people in a span of five days — are expected to grow in frequency and magnitude in coming years.

“We’re on the real edge of needing to make some decisions about what to do to reduce fatalities that occur, and kill more people than all other natural disasters each year,” Shandas says.

A one-two punch

So how do we resolve this?

Shandas and a team of two other PSU colleagues, Linda George and David Sailor, just began working on something they call the “human vulnerability to urban heat and air pollution” project.

They received a $50,000 grant from the nonprofit Bullitt Foundation, which awards programs that pose solutions to multiple problems. Their goal is to map the “hottest and dirtiest places in the city,” provide online tools for the community, and come up with strategies to improve those conditions.

They’ll work with an advisory group of government and community leaders and come up with a set of recommendations they hope City Council will adopt in the next couple years.

Shandas hesitates to call Portland’s effort an “action plan,” but if the council accepts it, it will be a charge for the city to carry forward.

Meanwhile, it’s a national issue: Cities like Chicago and Philadelphia are creating their own climate change or urban heat action plans.

Kenward, the Climate Central researcher, says her team may come back in a few years with a look at some of those cities’ action plans to see if they’ve made progress.

The Climate Central study is pretty straightforward, comparing the temperatures during the past decade at Portland International Airport with three surrounding areas and found an average difference of 7.8 degrees. The rural areas were Vernonia (west of Hillsboro), Durfur (south of The Dalles) and Three Lynx (east of Molalla).

Shandas says these spots are true rural areas, unlike some other cities’ rural areas, which actually might be suburban towns. That might account for some of the reason the temperature disparity is so stark.

KPTV chief meteorologist Mark Nelsen surmises that the urban heat island effect here might be due to the fact that Portland has foothills and mountains relatively close to the city so it cools off even quicker than one might expect in the outlying areas.

The heat island effect stores heat in concrete and other impermeable surfaces and releases it at night — hence the long string of warmer-than-normal nights.

Green spaces, bodies of water and anything else that can reduce the amount of reflective surfaces are ways to mitigate the effect.

Isn’t that what Portland is famous for, with its eco-roofs, eco-districts and presence of Forest Park, one of the largest urban reserves in the country?

Yes, Shandas says, but the city still inherited a legacy of development that needs to be addressed through other strategies.

As a social scientist, Shandas is a fan of simple solutions like building awareness and education among families, seniors and other vulnerable populations.

The risk isn’t just heat, but air quality, a threat to anyone with asthma or respiratory problems.

“Neighbors checking up on each other could have prevented a lot of deaths in Chicago in 1995,” he says. “That coupling of heat and bad air is like a one-two punch to urban residents.”

The issue might be wonky, but is getting more attention as people start to notice the heat — and its big-picture impact.

“There are a number of things that are hidden that we don’t know about that fundamentally affect us,” Shandas says, “and will literally affect our well-being, our ability to live healthy, full, rich lives.”

Tell yourself you love the weather — and you will

Photo Credit: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP FILE PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Children take advantage of the spray at Red Sunset Park to stay cool this summer. The Portland area has seen more 90-degree days this summer than in the past.There are two kinds of Oregonians: Those who don’t want summer to end, and those who already are dreaming about pumpkin spice lattes in August.

We have mixed feelings about summer in Oregon.

“Initially we’re happy in hot weather, but I think the longer we’re exposed to it, the less happy we get,” says John Grohol, a Massachusetts-based psychologist who is founder of an online mental health tool called Psych Central.

While it’s not a huge area of study, psychologists have looked into the link between people and their surroundings and found that weather definitely impacts both our mood and the way we relate to one another.

In general, Grohol says, people adapt to their region’s climate, and when confronted with change unusual to the region — like a heat wave — things can get hairy.

“People can have shorter tempers, just have less patience for things they’d ordinarily have more patience for, like sitting in traffic or hanging around with family or partner,” Grohol says.

Extreme heat and humidity can bring on lethargy, irritability and even aggression and violence. There have been studies proposing a link between heat and higher crime rates, but no solid evidence.

For most of us the summer doldrums are just a temporary affliction; others might be suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder, which is less common in the summer than winter, but does exist.

Brian Detweiler-Bedell, associate professor and chairman of psychology at Lewis & Clark College, says one of the most powerful drivers in our thoughts about the weather come from the stories we tell ourselves, which become self-fulfilling.

“The stories we tell ourselves — we’re all laid-back, don’t mind the rain, love the summertime — contribute to us being friendly,” he says.

In other cities on the East Coast, by comparison, the stories are about people being gruffer and grumpier and, by and large, “they’re acting on the stories they tell themselves.”

Detweiler-Bedell loves the “Portlandia” sketch about the group of friends finding a sunbreak in the midst of winter, where they set up a barbecue, start dancing and shedding their layers, only to pack up and move to another sunbreak when it disappears.

They talk about being on antidepressants and meeting up again when the sun comes out.

“People here love the weather,” Detweiler-Bedell says. “And they love griping about that time when it becomes too much. What’s great is it brings all of us together.”

Parks, pools, A/C installers keep the cool

When the temperature heats up, people love their parks.

Portland Parks & Recreation set a record for attendance at their dive-in movies, with 1,594 people at five showings of “The Lego Movie.”

“Weather, we’re confident, played a huge role,” parks spokesman Mark Ross says.

In addition, more than 2,000 people came out to the parks bureau’s 14 Aquatic Fun Days and attended the seven “Itty Bitty Beach Parties” throughout the summer.

Attendance for the city’s public pools isn’t tallied until late September, but many pools hit capacity, causing waits for use. Grant Pool, the city’s busiest, typically attracts about 80,000 visits per summer.

Local air conditioning companies felt the pinch. “July was a pretty record month,” says Cathy Hyatt, accounting manager at AAA Heating and Cooling in Portland. “People who do without air conditioning just kind of prefer that. Those that have it say ‘Come now’ (when it breaks). ... There’s one stretch of heat when people just can’t take it any more.”

A whopping 82 percent of Portland residents now have air conditioning in their home, compared with 33 percent in 1995, according to Portland General Electric. Fifty-five percent of those homes have central air; 27 percent have a window, wall or portable AC.

The increasingly hot summers have meant a huge switch for the utility: typically their service peaks in the winter, when everyone cranks the heat up.

“But as time’s gone by,” PGE spokesman Steve Corson says, “we’re seeing more and more of a summertime peak ... eventually we anticipate our highest demand will be in the summer.”

The increase, he says, is as much due to all new homes being built with central air as well as “different demands of what people want as far as comfort in their home.”

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