Human biometeorology, the study of the effects of weather on human health, is growing in importance in this era of urbanization and climate change. Dr. Jennifer Vanos, Assistant Professor of Atmospheric Science at Texas Tech University, specializes in weather’s effects on athletes, specifically extreme heat.
Her work is a marriage of two of her abiding passions; weather and sports. GreenSportsBlog caught up with Dr. Vanos to gain a deeper understanding of human biometeorology and to get a sense of what sports and academia are doing to lessen the impacts of extreme heat on athletes.
GreenSportsBlog: I have to say I knew nothing about human biometeorology before doing some research before our talk. What a fascinating area of study! It seems to firmly be in the world of climate change adaptation—figuring out how humans can better deal with the effects of climate change that are already here or will soon be—vs. mitigation—the efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions so as to lessen the impact of climate change. Most of the attention given to—and work on—climate change focuses on mitigation. GreenSportsBlog is no exception. So I am glad to talk to you about your work and about climate change adaptation. How did you find human biometeorology?
Dr. Jennifer Vanos: You’re absolutely right about human biometeorology being in the adaptation section of the climate change fight. I became interested in the weather during my days as an undergrad at the University of Guelph (Ontario, Canada). In fact, I was a subject in a human heat-balance experiment (i.e. how we cool ourselves during exercise in different hot weather conditions), and I was able to build upon this work with new studies in my own graduate research, also at Guelph. Many of my studies focus on weather’s dynamic effects on humans, including athletes, during physical activity in hot urban areas. My work is a marriage of my passion for weather and my love for sports. I ran varsity track in college, with a particular focus on the 800m and 2000m steeplechase.
Dr. Jennifer Vanos, Assistant Professor of Atmospheric Science at Texas Tech University. (Photo credit: Texas Tech University)
GSB: This is a GreenSportsBlog first—the first time we’ve talked to a steeplechaser!
JV: That was my event. In 2005, I ran the 3000 meter steeplechase at the 2005 Junior PanAm Games in Windsor, Ontario and the 2000 meter steeplechase at the Canada Summer Games in Regina, Saskatchewan…
Jennifer Vanos (Ontario, #379 in red), running the 2000 meter steeplechase at the 2005 Canada Summer Games in Regina, Saskatchewan. (Photo credit: Canada Summer Games)
GSB: Another GSB first—the first time we’ve talked to a Junior PanAm Games participant! Human biometeorology is a natural field for you! What does your work focus on currently?
JV: A lot of my work centers on how small-scale design changes, such as areas within or surrounding a park or field, can reduce the heat load on people during exercise in urban areas. Doing so means that someone could exercise in a safer thermal environment over a longer period of time. I’ve recently turned my attention towards children given their vulnerability to heat stress and the fact that significantly less is known about children than adults when it comes to heat stress during physical activity.
GSB: That makes a lot of sense, and important. Back to something you mentioned earlier: What does heat balance mean?
JV: Well, heat balance is like a bank balance, where a neutral (or $0) balance would be ‘comfortable’ (or in balance), but if you have a very positive balance, you will feel warm/hot, and a negative balance means you feel cool/cold. A human’s heat balance is measured through a combination of weather and physiological parameters. We lose heat through evaporation and convection, and we gain a lot of heat through radiation and metabolism. I am largely interested in radiation exposures from the sun among active individuals and what actions can be taken to reduce them, as they can significantly influence heat stress.
GSB: What actions can be taken?
JV: We look at the effect on human heat balance of the introduction shade, often with a shade sail or trees. Meteorological data and data from personal sensors have shown that shade sails significantly reduce the human heat balance on hot days, as well as harmful UV radiation; thus children are less likely to experience heat stress. From both a heat balance and thermal comfort perspective, this means that children can be more active for a longer period of time in safe thermal conditions.
GSB: What other variables impact the effect of heat on athletes?
JV: Switching from artificial turf to grass has been shown to reduce air and surface temperatures on playgrounds and on sports fields/in stadiums. Our goal with all this is to generate evidence for policy change for youth sports—i.e. to say that artificial turf or rubber-based turf is not safe for use in kids’ fields in very warm climates, and that access to shade is essential in playground design to support safe and active play. A study I led in Phoenix showed that plastic slides and rubber surfaces in a playground in the sun reached 160°F and 175°F, respectively. Both of these values would burn a child’s skin, which means no play! In the shade, the surface temperatures dropped to about 115°F, which is safe for play.
GSB:115°F is safe for play for kids? Really?
JV: Yes. In fact, there are intentional standards that exist with regards to what surface temperatures on certain materials may burn skin after a certain number of seconds. The threshold for the coated metal in playgrounds in about 150°F is just 3 seconds. I have not found existing thresholds for artificial turf and rubber temperatures, however, at an artificial turf football field here in Lubbock Texas, we found surface temperatures of 175°F! This was melting the football players’ shoes during practice. Such high surface temperatures also significantly increase the air temperature just above it, thus creating its own small-scale, unsafe climate (or ‘micro-climate’).
GSB: With these insanely hot temperatures, I’ve got to believe that this approach of improving the environment of playgrounds, making them healthier and more comfortable, has to be popular among parents.
JV: Yes! And by focusing on adapting to extreme heat, which is something that affects everyone’s life at some point in time, I can focus on weather variations without explaining the role of long term climate change, which many people don’t realize needs 30 years of data to properly study. So I do not actually do any climate change studies in this research area. However, we know that we can prepare for (or adapt) to a warmer future. I talk about weather and how it impacts kids and athletes today. That’s how you can make positive attitude change towards environmental design now for a better future…
GSB: …Very powerful, although I can see how you could team up with your Texas Tech climate scientist colleague, Dr. Katharine Hayhoe on an adaptation/mitigation speaker series. Is the approach you’re using with playgrounds also used in stadium design?
JV: Certainly. We focus on reaching people through personal experiences, which in Texas can often be sports, such as football! Another important aspect of research as far as stadiums are concerned is their orientation and how that may affect heat and solar radiation exposure…
GSB: …What does orientation mean?
JV: How a stadium is situated in terms of north and south, east and west. Is it in a valley or in an elevated area? What is the latitude of the given city? The goal is to orient the stadium in such a way to minimize heat and radiation exposure in the warm season in hot climates, and get some air-flow. In cold climates, the emphasis is a bit different with wind being the biggest concern in the winter, and having radiation is important for keeping the spectators warm. This area of study is called Bioclimatic Design, which is all about designing for the given location’s climate. This means that we would design a space very differently in Toronto than in Phoenix.
GSB: That’s a new term for me. There has to be an application beyond sports stadiums, right?
JV: Definitely, especially in urban areas. There are data that show we can limit the effects of increasing temperature and the urban heat island (higher temperatures in an urban area as compared to rural) more so by using bioclimatic design than by, say, reducing carbon emissions. By that I mean, we can lower temperatures in urban areas by 3-4°C through optimal design, tree-lined streets, shaded and well-vegetated parks, cool roofs, etc.—along with reducing radiant heat load on buildings. That temperature reduction is greater than increases we may see with climate change over a 100 year period, so focusing on reducing heating in cities due with design and lessen anthropogenic heating is just as important as mitigation! I work closely with Dr. Robert Brown, Professor of Landscape Architecture at the University of Guelph on bioclimatic design research. We have a few projects looking at athlete heat balance and design changes to lessen heat stress, one of which is examining the design or the course for the 2020 Olympic Marathon in Tokyo.
GSB: That is AMAZING—your work is really important.
JV: Thank you, Lew. I have a paper on heat balance submitted and another on personal UV radiation exposures to children just was accepted. I will also be continuing my work at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). I will be working across two disciplines—Atmospheric Sciences and Public Health.
GSB: We will be keeping tabs on your work at UCSD. All the best!
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