If You Can't Stand the Heat ...

BY MISTY EDGECOMB

The official heat advisory has been dropped, and we’re getting a reprieve: It’s only predicted to hit 101 F today.

Only.

Las Vegas development stretching to horizon. Photo by: iStock/littleny

Las Vegas development stretching to horizon. Photo by: iStock/littleny

Of course, compared to the all-time-high of 117 F … you see, I moved from New England to Las Vegas at the beginning of the summer.  Growing up in Northern Maine, I’m well-acquainted with -40 F, but Mojave Desert heat is an entirely different world, one that The Guardian recently described as likely to become “hellish.” My son manages to play on our shaded patio for 20 minutes at a stretch, before coming back inside, red-faced and asking for ice water.

By mid-century, we’re conservatively expected to see temperatures here in excess of 105 for a solid month each year, and temperatures over 90 F for nearly five months of the year. By 2050 we’ll literally be off the charts – reaching temperatures for which there is no historical analog in the heat index.

I hide in my air-conditioned house and scurry to my air-conditioned car. But thousands of people aren’t so fortunate, and for them, this impact of climate change is deadly. In Nevada last year, 235 people died because of heat. Statistics don’t reveal how many of these people are homeless, struggling to survive without shelter. For others, who live in apartments and homes where air conditioning is even an option, cooling a home so that it’s livable during peak summer heat may be beyond the means of many. We’ve been keeping our thermostat at 80 F for efficiency, and our monthly electric bill for an average-sized, well-built house still exceeds $250.

And like many American cities, Las Vegas isn’t only experiencing hotter weather, the city itself radiates heat back into the air, making the city hotter than the surrounding landscape – a phenomenon known as the heat island effect. Rankings vary, but Las Vegas experiences one of the most problematic heat islands in the US, and the city of just over 640,000 is expanding at a rapid pace. When we moved to Las Vegas a few months ago for my husband’s new job, we were far from alone. Clark County has been one of the nation’s fastest growing counties for the past several years, and entirely new neighborhoods – homes, stores, offices, and yes … a lot of pavement – are popping up overnight to meet the increased demand. I’ve gotten lost more than once because I mixed up one under-construction retail stretch with its near-twin a few streets over.

So I was excited to learn about how the local chapter of TNC is working with student planners and landscape architects from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, to inform how this fast-growing city thinks about climate, designing prototypes for parking lots that provide shade as well as wildlife habitat, incorporating conservation science into the creative process to design solutions that serve people and nature.  Nature itself can make cities more livable, with shade trees cooling streets and parking lots by several degrees.

By working with those who will influence how Las Vegas responds to rising temperatures, maybe it will be possible to create the denser, greener, more climate-savvy neighborhoods that could be the salvation of my new home and a model for other cities on the front lines of climate change.