MURFREESBORO, Tenn. — Though most Americans are not afraid of a little heat, few know that there are more heat-related deaths in the United States than from tornadoes, hurricanes, blizzards, floods and lightning combined.  

High temperatures are even further exacerbated by the Urban Heat Island, or UHI, effect, the phenomenon of city environments with more concrete, more machines and less green space having higher temperatures than surrounding rural areas. 

As part of their Urban Heat Youth Fellows research project, Middle Tennessee State University professors Alisa Hass and Adelle Monteblanco had research participants observe heat in the Metro Nashville, Tenn., city environment using a FLIR thermal imaging camera. (Photos courtesy of Adelle Monteblanco)

Adelle Monteblanco, assistant professor of sociology, and Alisa Hass, assistant professor of geosciences, partnered on the Urban Heat Youth Fellows research project this summer to study the UHI effect’s impacts on 11 Metro Nashville residents age 15 to 18 and lead them through study and outreach on the topic.  

The two landed $17,000 in funds from the university’s Internal Grant Opportunities, or MT-IGO, program for the study. They also brought in MTSU student research assistants Hannah NewcombMarissa Pickett and Sophia Roberts and collaborated with the Cumberland River Compact and Nashville office of the National Weather Service to complete it.  

Monteblanco said they focused on young people because they are an understudied demographic in climate research despite having the burden of shouldering its consequences. 

“A quote from CNN still sticks with me,” she said. “‘Because of the climate crisis, a child born today will experience 35 times more life-threatening extreme heat events than one born about 60 years ago.’ This is their lives and well-being…. We wanted to give them a few resources to be safe and learn from their brilliance, too!” 

As part of their Urban Heat Youth Fellows research project, Middle Tennessee State University professors Alisa Hass and Adelle Monteblanco distributed these iButton temperature monitors to the Metro Nashville, Tenn., research participants to wear daily to help the research team study the impact of the Metro Nashville city landscape on heat. (Photo courtesy of Adelle Monteblanco)

The team led participants called “fellows” — who joined the study on a first-come, first-served basis — in lessons hosted at the Cumberland River Compact about the UHI effect and heat as a justice issue. Fellows observed the UHI effect outside using Kestral weather meters and FLIR thermal imaging cameras, made predictions about their own heat environments, tested their heat environments for a week with iButton temperature monitors and used their iButton data and new knowledge to create heat communication products to disperse physically as flyers or digitally across social media.  

Ten of the participants completed an end of program survey with overwhelmingly positive responses, Hass said.  

“All participants indicated that the program was effective at increasing their understanding of urban heat and that they would recommend this program to a peer,” she said. “Most indicated that they would be willing to serve as a mentor or educator in subsequent years.” 

Hass added that Jamie Burriss, program manager for the university’s Office of Research and Sponsored Programs, was integral in helping them navigate the project and funding.  

“She is such a detail-oriented and thoughtful staff member, and we could not have successfully moved through this project without her assistance,” she said. “Likewise, Lisa Lee, an ORSP accountant, has been extremely helpful in determining policies and the financial aspects of the grant.” 

Hass and Monteblanco hope to publish their findings soon and continue the program next year.  

Instrumental guidance 

Hannah Newcomb, sociology master’s student, was one of the project’s three student research assistants. Newcomb said she had always had an interest in the connection between environmental issues and public health.  

“Dr. Monteblanco encouraged graduate students within the sociology department to learn more about (this type of) research and get involved if we were interested,” she said. “So far I have had the opportunity to spread the word about the research and recruit participants, work with the youth that took part in the data collection portion of the research and assist with data input and analysis.” 

Newcomb, who came into the project less versed on the climate-science aspects, called the guidance from Monteblanco and Hass instrumental.  

“Before we really got started with the research, Dr. Monteblanco and Dr. Hass took the time to ensure that all of the research assistants, including me, understood the important concepts of heat and urban heat islands and were ready to apply them to the research,” she said. 

A Hendersonville, Tennessee, native, Newcomb is excited to continue the research this fall to see what conclusions the data analysis will reveal.   

To learn more about the research opportunities and support available for MTSU faculty and students, visit the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs website