Urban Vulnerability to Climate Change: A System Dynamics Analysis

Exposure to excessive heat is a significant threat to human health and wellbeing in cities around the world. Urbanization is strongly linked to increasing temperatures through the formation of “heat islands” – places with higher temperatures due to radiant heat from buildings, concrete and human activities. Such local effects are likely to intensify with future trends in global warming. Previous studies have shown that the urban poor are most vulnerable to extreme heat, but little is known about the interplay between changing urban climates and the coupled human-natural systems that amplify or mitigate climate-related hazards for different socioeconomic and racial/ethnic groups at finer spatial scales of neighborhoods and households.

Taking account of global trends in urban growth and climate change, this project investigates the causes of variation in heat-related human vulnerability within the metropolitan region of Phoenix, Arizona. An ideal laboratory for this research, Phoenix has a naturally hot, arid climate. Rapid urbanization has increased average summer nighttime temperature by five degrees Celsius during the past 50 years. The research will explain the character of complex urban heat “riskscapes,” assess the vulnerability of people in different neighborhoods to heat-related health hazards and identify the causes of variation of vulnerability within cities. Innovative methodological techniques used in this study are developing fine-scale, surface energy balance models for integrating and extending climate research over spatial and temporal scales; combining airborne and satellite remotely sensed data with a meteorological model nested in state-of-the-art global climate model output; conducting spatial analyses of heat riskscapes and heat-related illnesses; and community-participatory research on coping strategies in low-income and minority neighborhoods.

Resulting data and model outputs will be used to build an integrated system dynamics model of vulnerability to climate change that incorporates substantial feedback mechanisms from human adaptations. Researchers will use the model to test hypotheses about complex interactions between human manipulation of the environment and induced climate response, to explore relationships between neighborhood and regional dynamics and to forecast alternative future scenarios. Model projections for the distribution of future heat-related vulnerabilities and human responses that impact particular places and population subgroups are important for cities on several continents because enlarging heat islands, higher temperatures and associated adverse impacts on health are occurring globally. Model results will be displayed in a visualization environment that will allow stakeholders to examine alternative future vulnerability scenarios; this will make knowledge accessible to the community and promote better decision-making. Local residents, university students and project investigators will engage in collaborative community-participation research to promote heat-hazard mitigation in inner-city Phoenix neighborhoods. Educational activities will be designed for low-income and minority populations, including the production of a children’s magazine issue on “people and climate” that will reach thousands of households.

Team Members:

  • Sharon Harlan, Arizona State University School of Human Evolution and Social Change, Principal Investigator
  • Darrel Jenerette, University of California, Riverside, Principal Investigator
  • Susan Grossman-Clarke, Arizona State University Global Institute of Sustainability, Co-Principal Investigator
  • Tim Lant, Arizona State University Decision Theater, Co-Principal Investigator
  • Chris Martin, Arizona State University Department of Applied Sciences and Mathematics, Co-Principal Investigator
  • William Stefanov, Co-Principal Investigator
  • Karrin Alstad, Postdoctoral Fellow
  • Wade Bannister, Senior Personnel
  • Bob Bolin, Arizona State University School of Human Evolution and Social Change, Senior Personnel
  • Gerardo Chowell-Puente, Georgia State University School of Public Health, Senior Personnel
  • Monica Elser, Arizona State University Global Institute of Sustainability, Senior Personnel
  • William Johnson, Senior Personnel
  • Joellen Russell, Consultant
  • Anthony Brazel, Arizona State University School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, Senior Advisor
  • Patricia Gober, Arizona State University School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, Senior Advisor
  • Nancy Grimm, Arizona State University School of Life Sciences, Senior Advisor
  • Juan Declet-Barreto, Arizona State University School of Human Evolution and Social Change, Research Assistant
  • Darren Ruddell, Research Assistant

Funding Sources:
National Science Foundation (~$1.3 million)

University of California, Riverside (collaborating research institution)
Image and Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center
University of Arizona
Arizona Department of Environmental Quality