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This is one of Kansas City’s hottest summers ever. How will we survive future heat waves?

Jul 11, 2023

In late July, heat indexes in the Kansas City area topped 110 degrees for days on end.

The National Weather Service called it a “very unusual event,” with exceptionally hot nighttime temperatures. And New Jersey-based nonprofit research group Climate Central included Kansas City on a list of “urban heat islands” — cities where temperatures are significantly higher than their surrounding areas.

So what can Kansas City expect in years to come, as climate change brings even higher temperatures across the globe?

“In the future, we might experience more and more of these types of heat wave events,” said University of Missouri-Kansas City assistant professor Fengpeng Sun, who studies urban climates, sustainability and the future of climate change.

Sun says that levels of rain and snow will become more extreme, with some periods of very high precipitation and other periods of drought.

Urban areas like Kansas City are often hotter than suburban and rural areas because they have a higher prevalence of dark materials like asphalt and concrete, Sun said. These materials absorb solar radiation during the day and release heat at night.

“The temperature above those asphalt and concrete materials,” Sun said, “is going to be much hotter than the other surfaces.”

Cities also tend to have fewer trees to offer shade and less grass to absorb heat. And they have tall buildings that block the cooling effects of wind, Sun said. A larger population and more commuters also generate waste heat.

To mitigate the urban heat island effect, cities should plant trees, especially those with large canopies that can offer shade, Sun said.

Kansas City’s Climate Protection and Resiliency Plan, adopted in 2022, includes provisions that will maintain and increase the city’s tree canopy.

Cities can also apply light-colored materials to roofs to increase the albedo — the ability to reflect solar radiation — of buildings, Sun said.

Some cities, like Los Angeles, Phoenix and San Antonio, have begun applying such materials, called “cool pavement,” to their roads and painting them white.

People, too, can increase their own albedo by wearing light-colored clothing.

Sun participated in a recent project at UMKC that measured the temperature of T-shirts when exposed to the sun. The shirts were made of the same material but dyed in different colors.

The experiment found that the white, light gray and yellow shirts were relatively cool when exposed to the sun, while dark blue and black shirts were much hotter.

“You’re going to receive less amounts of energy,” Sun said. “That will keep you cool.”

The ultimate impact of climate change depends heavily on what humans do to stop it, Sun said. Adopting renewable energy will reduce the greenhouse effect. And technologies developed in the future could make a big difference.

“We want to be optimistic,” Sun said. “We are able to do some things that 10 years ago, or even 100 years ago, we were not able to do.”

But even if humans reach zero carbon emissions, that doesn’t remove the carbon that humans have put into the atmosphere over the past 200 years, Sun said.

“It’s going to still have an impact,” Sun said. “We also need to acknowledge those challenges.”