PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Have you ever wondered why the extreme heat impacts urban areas more than in rural communities?
Rachel Calabro, climate change and health manager for the Rhode Island Department of Health, tells 12 News it’s caused by the “heat island effect.”
Calabro said urban areas experience higher temperatures than rural areas due to the presence of more infrastructure and less natural landscapes. This is also why when Air Quality Alerts are issued, cities like Providence are often mentioned specifically, along with the fact they typically have higher concentrations of ground-level ozone.
Amy Rittenhouse has lived in Providence for 30 years and knows all too well how hot it can get in the capital city.
“It’s a killer coming back into the city,” she said. “It’s just like a brick wall.”
Manmade infrastructure, such as concrete roadways and buildings, absorb and re-emit the sun’s heat more than green spaces, water bodies and trees do, according to Calabro.
“This landcover causes those areas of the city to be hotter than other areas that have more trees or green spaces,” Calabro explained.
In 2020, the R.I. Department of Health studied four cities — Providence, Central Falls, Pawtucket and East Providence — and discovered temperatures can be up to 12.6 degrees hotter there than in the state’s suburban and rural communities.
Joseph Wendelken, a spokesperson for the Health Department, said heat islands tend to affect both low-income and minority communities more than others.
“Heat, health and equity are closely intertwined,” he explained. “These neighborhoods have more manmade infrastructure and less tree canopy. The effects of the urban heat island are also exacerbated in these neighborhoods, as people may not have or be able to afford air conditioning, which is the number-one protective factor against heat-related illness.”
The city of Providence has opened several cooling centers where residents can go to cool off, and also extended the hours at outdoor water parks due to the extreme heat.
Over the past decade, the Health Department has reported 12 deaths from heat-related illnesses. While it’s unclear where these deaths occurred, Wendelken said heat-related ailments are more common in urban areas.
“Areas that are hotter during the day generally stay warmer overnight, which can deprive the body of an important opportunity to cool off and recover from the physical stress of heat exposure,” he said.
So what’s the state doing to help those living in urban areas?
Wendelken said the Health Department is “supporting community efforts to increase green spaces to help mitigate urban heat islands,” adding that they’re actively working with local governments to strategically plant more trees and create additional green spaces in neighborhoods that need them most.