Attribution of mortality to the urban heat island during heatwaves in the West Midlands, UK

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Background: The Urban Heat Island (UHI) effect describes the phenomenon whereby cities are generally warmer than surrounding rural areas. Traditionally, temperature monitoring sites are placed outside of city centres, which means that point measurements do not always reflect the true air temperature of urban centres, and estimates of health impacts based on such data may under-estimate the impact of heat on public health. Climate change is likely to exacerbate heatwaves in future, but because climate projections do not usually include the UHI, health impacts may be further underestimated. These factors motivate a two-dimensional analysis of population weighted temperature across an urban area, for heat related health impact assessments, since populations are typically densest in urban centres, where ambient temperatures are highest and the UHI is most pronounced. We investigate the sensitivity of health impact estimates to the use of population weighting and the inclusion of urban temperatures in exposure data. Methods: We quantify the attribution of the UHI to heat related mortality in the West Midlands during the heatwave of August 2003 by comparing health impacts based on two modelled temperature simulations. The first simulation is based on detailed urban land use information and captures the extent of the UHI, whereas in the second simulation, urban land surfaces have been replaced by rural types. Results and conclusions: The results suggest that the UHI contributed around 50 % of the total heat-related mortality during the 2003 heatwave in the West Midlands. We also find that taking a geographical, rather than population-weighted, mean of temperature across the regions under-estimates the population exposure to temperatures by around 1 °C, roughly equivalent to a 20 % underestimation in mortality. We compare the mortality contribution of the UHI to impacts expected from a range of projected temperatures based on the UKCP09 Climate Projections. For a medium emissions scenario, a typical heatwave in 2080 could be responsible for an increase in mortality of around 3 times the rate in 2003 (278 vs. 90 deaths) when including changes in population, population weighting and the UHI effect in the West Midlands, and assuming no change in population adaptation to heat in future.




Heaviside, C., Vardoulakis, S., & Cai, X. M. (2016). Attribution of mortality to the urban heat island during heatwaves in the West Midlands, UK. Environmental Health: A Global Access Science Source, 15.

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