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In harm's way, Cleveland seeks climate resilience

Marc Lefkowitz  |  11/10/17 @ 3:00pm  |  Posted in Climate

Since rigging up his Surly cargo bike with 40 pounds of atmospheric monitors, GPS, and a camera to tour around Cleveland during the summer of 2012 in search of its hot spots (then mapping these “urban heat islands” with the locale of populations that are vulnerable to sudden shifts in temperature), Dr. Nick Rajkovich has put a lot of thought into his role as a climate resilience researcher.

Too vulnerable<br />Dr. Nicolas Rajkovich presents on climate resilience. The map represents Cuyahoga County population most vulnerable to expected increases in heat and cold weather events.

Rajkovich is the lead researcher for Cleveland Neighborhood Progress' Climate Resilience and Urban Opportunity Initiative. They are two years into a three-year study that has yielded a lot of information—in search of how Cleveland’s climate is expressing itself in the wake of local temperatures increasing by 2 degrees Fahrenheit.

“I can tell you, without a doubt, that a warming climate means wherever the lake (Erie) goes, we go,” says Rajkovich, Associate Professor in the School of Architecture and Planning at University of Buffalo, a city that ranks third in the U.S. for costliest natural disasters, most from snow damage.

During a presentation this week to a packed room at The Cleveland Museum of Natural History, Rajkovich, a native of Northeast Ohio, considered what climate change attributes should concern Cleveland and Cuyahoga County, two 'built out' environments, meaning, lots of impervious surfaces.

The National Academy of Sciences has expressed the highest confidence in climate change attribution for extreme heat and cold temperature events. The report is not lost on emergency preparedness professionals. Cuyahoga County Office of Emergency Management, in its 2017 - 2022 All Hazards Mitigation Plan, expects increases in flooding, temperature extremes and severe winter weather.

“They expect a 26% increase in precipitation in Northeast Ohio, which is significant,” Rajkovich says, especially for Cleveland which lost 97,000 acres of trees since 1940. “Less tree canopy means more flooding and more heat island effect.”

Also, mortality spikes on high heat days like the infamous Chicago heat wave in 1997 that killed 700.

“Is Cleveland prepared?” he asks. “With cooling centers and checking on people without air conditioning?”

Climate resilience seeks to be proactive. Responses are at the community scale, from re-foresting vacant land to home weatherization.

“There are significant energy savings to be had with weatherization,” Rajkovich says.

Cleveland and Cuyahoga need a climate resilience response; it could start with finding the homes in most in need of weatherization.

Rajkovich weighs the data from his “weather bike”—areas downwind of forests are 0.5 degrees cooler than areas downwind of impervious surfaces. Also, bodies of water are 2.7 times as strong as a forest in cooling air temperature.

While weatherization waits for an organizational champion, the City of Cleveland has found partners like the Western Reserve Land Conservancy’s urban reforestation initiative to take the lead on restoring the Forest City. The Cleveland Tree Plan calls for an immediate 50,000 trees to be planted.

Because inland is not enough to stake a claim on being out of harm’s way.

“We have tremendous flooding and heat events,” he concludes. “Resilience — and where we need to get with buildings and cities — is to anticipate and get out ahead of these events.”

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