Extreme heat brings significant public health risks and costs for densely populated urban centers. New research will consider urban forestry to cool urban hot spots and reduce health risks.  

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Cornell-EDF projects to study extreme urban heat, ag sustainability

The Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability has announced two new projects co-led by Cornell researchers and Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) practitioners: one will explore strategies to reduce heat-related illness and death through urban forestry, and one will assess technologies and management practices to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural fertilizers.  

The projects have received roughly $100,000 each from the Atkinson Center’s Innovation for Impact Fund. Since 2012, the fund has prioritized actionable results by supporting 30 research projects that bridge the gap between scientific discovery and real-world implementation.  

“Research initiatives that are co-created among Cornell faculty and experts from EDF have proven to be one of the most effective ways to find new pathways to impact,” said David Lodge, the Francis J. DiSalvo Director of Cornell Atkinson. “This new cohort includes research efforts that are as compelling as they are relevant to our most pressing sustainability challenges.” 

“This close relationship between EDF and Cornell Atkinson enables us to partner across Cornell's breadth of expertise to develop the science that allows our strategies and advocacy to stay on the cutting edge,” said Doria Gordon, senior director and lead senior scientist at EDF. “We are excited to collaborate on new tools and learnings to achieve our goals of stabilizing the climate and strengthening people’s ability to thrive.” 

Urban greening and health 

Since 1979, extreme heat events have caused over 11,000 deaths and 28,000 hospitalizations in the U.S. As climate change increases the frequency and duration of extreme heat events, those numbers are expected to climb. Older adults, children, those with multiple medical conditions, low-income people, minorities and people who work outside are among the most vulnerable.  

“Approximately 80% of Americans reside in urban areas, making them more vulnerable to heat stress and adverse heat-related health effects,” said co-investigator Arnab Ghosh, assistant professor of Medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College. “Individuals who live in neighborhoods with less urban green space and who either have reduced physiological capacity or who lack resources to limit heat exposure are particularly vulnerable.” 

The research team plans to develop a framework to connect urban forestry initiatives to climate and community health outcomes. Using data from the National Weather Service and the New York State Department of Health, the researchers will predict block-level ambient heat exposure in New York City from 2015-2022, and compare that to heat-related emergency department visits and hospitalizations. They’ll also conduct interviews with urban foresters, public health officials, community organizations and other stakeholders to better understand the practical, economic and policy-related considerations of urban tree planting.  

The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 provides $1.5 billion for urban forestry initiatives nationwide, creating a need for data-driven guidelines municipalities can use to maximize the effectiveness of greening projects. 

The research team includes Ghosh; Dan Katz, senior research associate in the School of Integrative Plant Science; Qi Li, assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering; Lesa Walker, physician and EDF consultant, Fiona Lo, EDF climate scientist; Julia Gohlke, EDF lead senior scientist; and Alex Young, research scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Urban Forest Service.  

Strive for Food and Climate  

Agriculture accounts for 10% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and excess fertilizer use wastes farmers’ resources and causes runoff water pollution. On average, crops like corn, soy and wheat take up only 40% of the nitrogen applied to them each year; the rest pollutes waterways, causing algal blooms, fish die-offs and ocean dead zones.  

Cornell and EDF partners seek to understand the life-cycle greenhouse gas impacts of existing fertilizer production methods, and to assess emerging technologies to determine how they might help reduce runoff and climate impacts. Previous efforts have focused on industrial production of fertilizers or on-farm fertilizer practices. This project seeks to make a holistic assessment of impacts through the entire supply chain. 

“We seek to develop an integrated, life-cycle assessment of greenhouse gas emissions, water and energy impacts related to industrial and farming activities,” said co-investigator Greeshma Gadikota, associate professor and Croll Sesquicentennial Fellow of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “Identifying specific sources that are the largest contributors to emissions, and the highest use of water and energy sources is the first step toward developing actionable strategies to achieve holistic reductions within the entire agricultural supply chain.” 

Gadikota, who is also a Cornell Atkinson Senior Faculty Fellow, is partnering with Alison Eagle, senior scientist for Climate-Smart Agriculture at EDF, and Ramon Alvarez, associate chief scientist for EDF.  

Cornell Atkinson will host information and matchmaking sessions for faculty members interested in connecting in-person with EDF scientists for future projects on Sept. 26 and 27. Discover more about the 2024 joint research funding through the Innovation for Impact Fund

Krisy Gashler is a freelance writer for Cornell Atkinson.  

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