An unlikely climate collaboration

Two mid-sized cities are working together to beat extreme heat and cold.

written by:
David M. Hondula and Paul Coseo, Arizona State University
Paul Iñiguez, NOAA/National Weather Service Phoenix, AZ
Ariane Middel, Temple University
Zoé Hamstead and Nicholas B. Rajkovich, University at Buffalo

The trip from Buffalo, New York, to Tempe, Arizona, spans 1,900 miles by air and nearly 2,200 miles by road. Those traveling from one to the other should know the weather forecast before departing. From a climate perspective, these two cities certainly aren’t next door neighbors. Buffalo sits on the eastern edge of Lake Erie, surrounded by farmland and forests. Tempe sits toward the northern end of the Sonoran Desert, amidst the dramatic cactus-dotted basin and range region. It takes Buffalo about three months to receive the same amount of rainfall that Tempe does in an entire year. And in terms of daily high temperatures, Buffalo’s July (79.9°F) is similar to Tempe’s March (78.3°F)–or November (77.6°F).

The two cities also represent contrasting storylines of urban growth and decline. Between the middle of the last century to the present, the City of Buffalo experienced a post industrial population decline from roughly 580,000 people to 256,000 people, while Tempe grew from 8,000 people to a city of 182,000. While the vast majority of Tempe’s housing was built after 1970, most of Buffalo’s was built prior to 1940, and is in need of energy efficiency upgrades. Although Buffalo is experiencing an artistic and architectural resurgence along with new industry development in medicine and renewable energy, on average, Buffalo households earn two-thirds that of households in Tempe. In Tempe, rapid growth fueled by expansion in education, finance, and technology sectors brings pressures for urban development and consequent impacts on the local environment.

Despite their geographical and historical contrasts, the cities do share a common experience with climatic extremes, especially cold and heat. Out of the 50 largest metropolitan areas in the United States, Buffalo’s winters rank as the 4th coldest, and those in Tempe (part of the Phoenix Metropolitan Area) rank as the hottest. Neither is completely immune from the other end of the weather spectrum, either. Buffalo has recorded seven days with daily high temperatures above 95°F since 1990, and Tempe has recorded five days with minimum temps of 20°F or below in the same span. Extreme heat and cold present challenges and risks for residents of both cities. Exposure to the harsh Buffalo winters and Tempe summers can be, and is, fatal for some. Others suffer cold- and heat-related illnesses, work and school absences, high utility bills, and reduced quality of life.

Snowstorm in Buffalo. Photo credit: Anthony Quintano, Nov. 2014, shared via Flickr and Wikimedia Commons with Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 generic license.

Top 5 Coldest US Metro Areas
Defined By Average Winter Temperature

Minneapolis, MN: 18.7 °F
Milwaukee, WI: 24.9 °F
Chicago, IL: 26.4 °F
Buffalo, NY: 27.1 °F
Detroit, MI: 28.0 °F

Sunset in Arizona. Photo credit: Pixabay, Jan. 2005, shared via with Creative Commons CC0 license.

Top 5 Hottest US Metro Areas
Defined By Average Summer Temperature

Phoenix, AZ: 93.1 °F
Riverside, CA: 90.3 °F
Las Vegas, NV: 90.0 °F
San Antonio, TX: 84.2 °F
Dallas, TX: 84.1 °F

Motivated by their shared experience battling thermal extremes, researchers and public officials from these two cities are working together to enhance management strategies for heat and cold through a grant from the National Science Foundation’s Smart and Connected Communities program. Through the one-year planning grant, the cities will exchange best practices for public preparedness and response strategies related to extreme weather and develop new ideas. Although heat and cold present distinct management challenges, the researchers believe that the hallmark characteristics of effective thermal management strategies are equally applicable at both ends of the climate spectrum. These characteristics include effective communication, attention to vulnerable populations, and context-appropriate landscape and building design guidelines.

Recent weather patterns highlight the urgency of attention to both extreme heat and cold, which collectively result in more weather-related deaths in the country than all other weather conditions combined — by a factor of more than 10. After experiencing its warmest December in history just two years ago, Buffalo’s December 2017 temperatures were nearly 5°F below the 30-year average, and its January was also below average. Record-setting snowfalls in nearby Erie, Pennsylvania, captured national attention. On the other side of the country, the Phoenix area has experienced abnormal warmth this winter, with both December and January falling among the four warmest on record. Furthermore, each of the last three summers in the Phoenix area (June-August) have ranked among the seven all-time warmest.

Extreme thermal conditions are always going to be part of the experience of people living in Buffalo, Tempe, and many other cities around the world. As attention increasingly grows toward climatic challenges, improved adaptation measures for both heat and cold could lead to sizable improvements in health, well-being, and economic activity. This is the first in a series of articles that will describe how the two cities of Buffalo and Tempe are collaborating to pursue such improvements. We invite you share your own experiences with thermal extremes in your city, and hope you will stay tuned as we share ours.