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Google's New Tool That Helps Cities Stay Cool

Google has started mapping trees across densely populated cities to help them stay cool | Image: Google

Earlier this month Google showcased their new, free mapping tool that shows where trees are planted and where they are sparse in highly populated cities, with the aim of helping their inhabitants adapt to a warming world.

Los Angeles was the first city to see the tool, while much more data on other cities is on the way. LA is the perfect example of why this tool is needed; cities are known to be much warmer than their surrounding areas because buildings trap heat, planting trees is a great solution to the issue of overheating. Over the last 50 years, LA heatwaves have increased in duration, frequency, and intensity according to researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in a study published this year. The tool, Tree Canopy Lab, found that more than 50% of Los Angeles's inhabitants live in places where trees shade less than 10% of their neighborhood, as well as that 44% of the city's population live in places with extreme heat risk.

Google’s new service will be updated regularly using images the company already takes by plane for Google Maps, while LA is the first recipient of the tool, data on hundreds of more cities are already being collected. Tree Canopy lab uses aerial imagery and Google's Ai to map every tree in the city, the tool puts this information into an interactive map as shown above, with additional data such as the density of the population of neighborhoods, which are more vulnerable to high temperatures.

Due to the urban "heat island" effect, high temperatures can be more dangerous in cities, as there are more heat-absorbing surfaces and fewer green plants in urban areas, where the average temperature is 6 degrees Fahrenheit higher than in rural areas. The night is a critical time for people’s bodies to recover from the hot day. Extreme heat is one of the most evidenced effects of climate change, it accounts for more deaths per year in the United States than any other weather-related disaster.

Trees can cool down a hot neighborhood in a number of ways; providing shade to people and buildings from the sun, release moisture when temperatures rise through evapotranspiration (a similar process to the way our bodies cool down by sweating) Those two mechanisms can lower peak summer temperatures by 1-5 degrees celcius, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

City planners interested in using the tool can reach out to Google through a form they posted with the announcement. The inventory of trees will be collected by sending people to survey each block in the city. LA has also used LIDAR (light detection and ranging) technology to map the urban forest in the past, this method uses a laser sensor to detect the trees — but that process was expensive and slow, according to Rachel Malarich, LA's first City Forest Officer. Malarich stated; "We’ll be able to really home in on where the best strategic investment will be in terms of addressing that urban heat".

LA is currently taking an effort to make communities more green, in preparation for a warmer world. They hope to increase canopy coverage to 50% in low-income, heat-affected communities by 2028, the government has also set a target of planting 90,000 trees across the city by 2021, which should bring an additional 61 million square feet of shade to the city.

Tree Canopy Lab will be a huge help in mapping out areas where trees are most needed in a community, in less developed economies where there is less building legislation, houses and buildings are built hazardously and with no consideration for proper ventilation, Google’s new tool will be considered invaluable to its inhabitants.

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