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Planting Trees To Reduce Urban Heat? Works Better In Dry Climates, Study Finds

Gabriele Manoli
ETH Zurich
Researchers used summer temperature data from thousands of cities across the globe to create a model that measures urban heat island effects.

As the climate warms, cities are thinking about how to mitigate urban temperature increases. But cities in wet climates like South Louisiana may have a tougher time cooling off than those in drier climates, according to a new study published Wednesday in the scientific journal Nature.

Due to a variety of factors known as the "urban heat island effect," cities typically get a little hotter than suburbs and rural areas. Those factors include things like background climate, building height, population size and the amount of greenspace.

Conventional wisdom has been that planting trees can help lower temperatures, but according to the new study, that strategy has its limits in soggy South Louisiana.

"The conventional wisdom is right, it’s just not always as effective as you want it to be," study co-author Elie Bou-Zeid said. Bou-Zeid is a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Princeton University.

The paper found that adding trees to the urban landscape always helps reduce the heat island effect, but makes a much bigger difference in drier climates than it does in more tropical ones like South Louisiana.

“If you are a tropical city,” Bou-Zeid said, “you will get a benefit from adding more parks and trees in the city. But that benefit is not going to be as significant as [it would be in], let’s say, Phoenix.”

Bou-Zeid said the study suggests cities in wetter climates will have to find other ways to cool off -- like painting surfaces white to reflect more sunlight.

Support for the Coastal Desk comes from the Greater New Orleans Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and local listeners.

As Coastal Reporter, Travis Lux covers flood protection, coastal restoration, infrastructure, the energy and seafood industries, and the environment. In this role he's reported on everything from pipeline protests in the Atchafalaya swamp, to how shrimpers cope with low prices. He had a big hand in producing the series, New Orleans: Ready Or Not?, which examined how prepared New Orleans is for a future with more extreme weather. In 2017, Travis co-produced two episodes of TriPod: New Orleans at 300 examining New Orleans' historic efforts at flood protection. One episode, NOLA vs Nature: The Other Biggest Flood in New Orleans History, was recognized with awards from the Public Radio News Directors and the New Orleans Press Club. His stories often find a wider audience on national programs, too, like NPR's Morning Edition, WBUR's Here and Now, and WHYY's The Pulse.

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