Knoxville heat study reveals some areas run almost 16 degrees hotter

After months of work, the “Heat Watch” results are in, and the health of some in Knoxville can be negatively impacted.
Published: Nov. 10, 2022 at 6:14 PM EST|Updated: Nov. 10, 2022 at 8:11 PM EST
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) - While the weather is cooling down now, a summer study revealed how much Knoxville can heat up. After months of work, the “Heat Watch” results are in, and now the focus on what needs to be done to protect the health of people in certain parts of town.

From the country to the city, we all expect to feel some difference around town, but how much? That’s what a multi-agency research project now knows about Knoxville.

Dr. Jennifer First is an Assistant Professor in the College of Social Work at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. She worked with other departments at the university, plus agencies and organizations around town to coordinate this study the past few months.

Then on a hot, sunny day in late August, more than 100 square miles of Knox County were covered by drivers, with special sensors on their vehicle to measure how much hotter it can get from one block to the next.

“The spread from morning through evening, having those three time points, really shows the urban heat island effect that’s happening in our city,” First said.

An Urban Heat Island is created the heat absorption of concrete and a concentration of buildings, because they absorb more heat throughout the day.

This study found that some parts of town were already 10 degrees warmer in the morning, and that added up to being more than 15-degrees hotter by the evening.

One of the first to see these results was the Sustainability Director for the city of Knoxville. “Having this data, real world measurements, not assumptions, is pretty fantastic in terms of how the city, in how we build and how plan for roadways and development,” Brian Blackmon said.

Blackmon said his goal now is to see what projects are working for the city and what still needs to be done. “You see Cumberland, you see parts of Magnolia where we’re doing these massive roadway projects, and we’re starting to put in planted medians, and we do we breakup that asphalt,” Blackmon pointed out.

The heat study results show the temperature difference around town peaks in the evening, pointing to that building heat retention by the different surfaces. The evening readings ranged from just below 78 degrees, but the hot spots were still almost 93 degrees. But, that’s not just downtown Knoxville. These hotter zomes can be found along I-40 and Kingston Pike, and the bigger shopping areas are producing a lot of heat.

Dr. First’s said this about the West Knoxville readings: “many people use public transportation on Kingston Pike, so even though it’s an industrial place, many people are standing out there in the heat.”

Impacts to health are Dr. First’s focus, but also how this is more of a burden on certain people and parts of town. “The amount of utilities and energy to cool your home, if you live in an area that is 15 degrees hotter than another area of Knoxville, that burden when you already are low income is one of the key problems,” she said.

She also looked at past government research on health data for Knoxville. “One of the core hot spots areas, we see higher rates of heart disease, higher rates of asthma, lower income population, communities of color,” Dr. First compared.

Now, she hopes to see more investments to help cool these areas down and support when we are dealing with hotter days.

The study proves trees help. The large parks are the coolest parts of Knoxville, but it also confirmed that neighborhoods with a better tree canopy are protected from that urban heat island.

The goal now is to work with the City of Knoxville, and other organizations to find better ways to combat the urban heating.

Everyone involved in this “Heat Watch” study will be a part of a data release event on Monday, November 14th. You can more from the study results online: Knoxville Heat Equity Coalition.