Visualizing heat inequality
Plus: A Rio Grande streamflow mystery
Trying to predict what the weather is going to do in the Southwest is getting more and more difficult. Just look at the drought/flood combo that is walloping the region as we speak. But one forecast is reliable: It’s getting hotter, everywhere, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
The contiguous U.S., for example, just sweated through its third warmest July on record. And Colorado and New Mexico had the warmest minimum nighttime temperatures on record in July, as well.
Heat can be great—if you’ve got shade, a cold beverage, and a body of water to jump into or an air-conditioned house in which to seek refuge. But it can also be dangerous and even deadly. Extreme heat is most pronounced in urban areas, where the heat island effect results in warmer temperatures than in surrounding non-urban areas, especially at night. Consider Phoenix, where July high temperatures were in the triple digits on all but three days and nighttime lows only barely dropped below 90 degrees F.
Extreme heat disproportionately affects those in poverty and people of color, as multiple studies have found in recent years. After all, the chosen means of escaping the heat is to retreat into a well-insulated, air-conditioned house. But these days most people can’t afford a house, at all, let-alone an efficient, cool one. More often than not, affordable housing in the West is a mobile home, which on a hot summer’s day can feel more like a toaster oven. Even if it’s equipped with an air-conditioner, the cost to run it can be prohibitive.
This disproportionality is further exacerbated by the fact that the urban heat island effect tends to be worse in poorer neighborhoods. Why? Because those neighborhoods have fewer trees to shade them. Or at least that’s the hypothesis. I wanted to test it, so I turned once again to the trusty ol’ Sentinel Hub Playground and started looking around at Western cities and vegetation differences between neighborhoods. Then I found something called the Justice Map, which visualizes race and income. I figured I’d focus on Phoenix, since it’s one of the hottest places out there.
The top map shows income ranges, with dark red being the lowest tier, and the dark blue the highest income areas. For folks who know Phoenix there will be no surprises here. Scottsdale, Paradise Valley, Arcadia, Biltmore, and North Scottsdale areas are the upper-income areas, while Maryvale, Glendale, and Grandview areas are lower income.
Now, look at the next map. It shows the moisture index, with the moister areas in blue. But I’ve found that it’s generally a good proxy for vegetation (and shows up much more clearly than the vegetation imagery).
Crazy, eh? The correlation between the moister/more vegetated areas and the upper income areas is almost uncanny. I mean, it even holds for that one pocket of high-income in the Midtown area (just above downtown Phoenix). And, as you might have guessed, the areas with more blue (income and vegetation) also have the lowest populations of people of color.
Still, it might not work to use the Sentinel maps to determine the income levels of certain neighborhoods. These maps, for example, show only north Phoenix. The south side is a bit different: The upscale, newer Ahwatukee Foothills neighborhood, for example, does not have a lot of greenery. And while some correlations between greenery and income levels is evident in Tucson and Albuquerque, it is far less pronounced.
Maricopa County, home of Phoenix, has experienced 66 confirmed heat-related deaths so far this year, and another 268 fatalities are under investigation.
The State of Utah has filed suit against the Biden administration in an attempt to re-shrink the boundaries of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments. Their arguments are the same, worn out, baseless, illogical ones we’ve heard over and over again. In a nutshell: they’re trying to impose their ideology on public lands that are sacred to the tribal nations that are now co-managing them.
The lawsuit has been in the works since Biden reversed Trump’s shrinkage of the monument, so yesterday’s move is not a surprise. Still, one might have thought and hoped the state’s leaders would have come to their senses by now. Nope.
The irony here is that Utah’s main argument has been that the “locals” don’t want the national monuments in “their” counties. Kane and Garfield County—where Grand Staircase-Escalante is located—joined the state’s suit. But San Juan County—home of Bears Ears—adamantly opposes Utah’s actions and has passed resolutions supporting a further expansion of the national monument’s boundaries.
Meanwhile, one only need to spend a bit of time—or try to book a room—in Bluff or Boulder, Escalante or Monticello, or even Blanding, Utah, the center of Bears Ears opposition, to see that the locals are capitalizing off of their proximity to the national monuments. Plus, Biden’s restoration of the Bears Ears boundaries opened the door for a land exchange that would be very lucrative for the state and its schools; that won’t happen if the state wins its suit. I imagine that at some point Utahns might get fed up with their elected officials spending citizens’ tax money on ideological battles that ultimately hurt the economy and the state.
For more reading:
The Land Desk relies on readers like you to keep us going. If you’d like to support this work, consider becoming a paid subscriber.
Now for the Rio Grande streamflow mystery! Check out this USGS graph of peak streamflows for the Rio Grande at Otowi Bridge. The bridge, which sits on San Ildefonso Pueblo land, is somewhat famous for providing access to Los Alamos and therefore the Manhattan Project. But that’s not the mystery. The mystery is what the heck happened to peak streamflows in the 1940s? Look:
Some details of note:
The highest flow ever recorded was 24,400 on May 23, 1920.
Between 1985 and 1942 (41 years) the annual peak flow was 10,000 cubic feet per second or higher on 21 occasions—nine of those events topped 15,000 cfs and five were above 20,000 cfs.
Since 1942 (79 years) the peak flow has topped 10,000 cfs just eight times, never reaching 15,000 cfs.
The last time the flow exceeded 10,000 cfs was in 1994 (10,200 cfs on May 19).
So, the mystery is: What the heck happened in 1942-43 that stole the high waters from the Rio Grande? I initially assumed that a big reservoir must have been built upstream right about then that would have held back the peak flows. Here’s what I found:
Rio Grande Reservoir (way upstream) built in 1910;
El Vado Dam on the Chama River (tributary) was constructed in 1935 and refurbished in 1954;
Platoro Dam on the Conejos River, a Rio Grande tributary in Colorado, was completed in 1951;
Abiquiu Dam on the Chama was completed in 1963;
Heron Dam (off-stream of the Chama River, used to hold water diverted from the San Juan River on the other side of the Divide—so would not be relevant here), was completed in 1971.
I suppose the combination of El Vado, Platoro, and Abiquiu dams could be enough to basically wipe out peak streamflows after the early 1940s? Or were the Manhattan Project folks up to something else sinister we don’t know about? After all, the big flows stopped just as Oppenheimer and his people were getting started.
I’d love to hear your thoughts and theories and hypotheses! Send them my way or put them in the comments.