Windsor: Assessing Heat-health Vulnerabilities to Inform Adaptation

In 2012, the City of Windsor and the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit led development of a Heat Alert and Response System to protect people in Windsor, particularly the most vulnerable, from extreme heat events. Development of effective community alert and response measures depends upon assessment of population and community vulnerability. Heat-health vulnerability assessments document baseline exposures and consider population sensitivities as well as how individuals, communities, and society respond to extreme heat events and their capacity to adapt in the future. They provide decision makers and the public with knowledge about existing vulnerabilities to these events and to future climate change conditions, along with the range of responses needed to reduce adverse health impacts. The final report, Assessment of Vulnerability to the Health Impacts of Extreme Heat in the City of Windsor (2011) (completed by Health Canada), found that people living in Windsor are vulnerable to the health impacts of extreme heat events and actions are needed to prepare for increasing risks to health.

Understanding and Assessing Impacts

Extreme heat events are a growing threat to the health of Canadians as the climate continues to change. Windsor is the southernmost city in Canada and experiences some of the warmest summertime temperatures in the country. During summer months, temperatures are often above 30°C and average humidex values are the highest in Canada. Climate change is expected to significantly increase the number of extreme heat days annually in the region. This may exacerbate the risk of heat-related illness and deaths, particularly among seniors, people with chronic illnesses and other vulnerable groups. Extreme heat can cause serious illness and even death if people do not take protective measures in hot conditions. It can lead to skin rashes, cramps, dehydration, syncope (fainting), exhaustion and heat stroke. In Windsor, there is a strong association between excess mortality and temperature; at approximately 29°C, excess mortality begins to increase as ambient temperatures increase.

Development of an Urban Heat Island Effect (UHIE) map was initiated in order to generate a decision-making tool that could be used to visualize the impacts of the UHIE, to develop a mitigation strategy, and to inform heat alert and response planning in Windsor. The map was designed to represent the temperature differences throughout the city resulting from the UHIE, point data depicting the location facilities and businesses that are integral to heat alert and response, and socio-economic census data to account for the variance in heat vulnerability between different populations. The data selected for inclusion in the mapping was based on the detailed report Assessment of Vulnerability to the Health Impacts of Extreme Heat in the City of Windsor completed by Health Canada.

Heat Vulnerability Map for the City of Windsor

Map showing the areas in Windsor, ON that are the most vulnerable to heat.

Identifying Actions

The City of Windsor and Health Canada collaborated to undertake a heat-health vulnerability assessment to strengthen the Heat Alert and Response System as well as to engage important stakeholders. The methodology for the assessment was drawn from a framework developed by the Pan-American Health Organization and the World Health Organization for assessing health vulnerabilities related to climate change. The vulnerability assessment proceeded in five steps: (1) an initial assessment of the scope, objectives, work plan and stakeholders involved; (2) the collection and analysis of data, including an examination of the relationship between temperature and mortality; (3) the projection of future climate for the Windsor region; (4) a literature review to provide background information about the impacts of heat on health, vulnerability assessment methods and best adaptation practices; and (5) workshops to consult with stakeholders and the community about existing vulnerabilities, adaptive capacity and potential adaptation actions. The vulnerability assessment provided information that allowed city officials to develop more effective adaptation interventions.

Implementation

Based on the assessment findings, the City of Windsor is taking a number of actions to increase the resiliency of populations to extreme heat events, including development of a broad communication strategy with an extended reach through a social media campaign, completion of urban heat island mapping to assess urban heat island reduction measures, and improvement of the thermal design of city parks (including consideration of both natural and artificial shade, water features, and consideration of cool surfaces). Further, the City of Windsor currently has a range of adaptation plans and resources in place to help residents identify heat-health risks, prevention measures, and emergency resources. These resources help community members to reduce the risk of experiencing adverse health outcomes in response to extreme heat which is amplified by the urban heat island effect (UHIE). Such already implemented measures include the Stay Cool Windsor-Essex Heat Alert and Response System Plan, which was officially adopted in 2011, and currently remains in place; Places to stay cool (i.e., air-conditioned facilities as well as pools and splash pads that provide residents opportunities to stay cool); and Health services (e.g., Windsor-Essex County Health Unit and other facilities that provide health care).

Outcomes and Monitoring Progress

The final report, Assessment of Vulnerability to the Health Impacts of Extreme Heat in the City of Windsor (2011), found that people living in Windsor are vulnerable to the health impacts of extreme heat events and actions are needed to prepare for increasing risks to health. Examples of key heat-health vulnerability factors included the following:

  • Urban heat islands have been documented along the Toronto–Windsor corridor and in the Detroit–Windsor region. Continued urbanization of this region will result in an amplification of community exposure to extreme heat events.
  • Relative to Canadian and Ontario populations, people living in Windsor suffer more from a range of chronic diseases (high blood pressure, asthma, diabetes, obesity, circulatory disease, cancer) that increase vulnerability to the health impacts of extreme heat events.
  • Community events in Windsor during the summer season, which often attract large numbers of tourists from across the United States border, mean the potential exposure of very large numbers of people to extreme heat events.
  • Of the 4,728 community housing units that the city and county manage, the vast majority of these do not have air conditioning, increasing the vulnerability of residents to heat-related illnesses and deaths. A lack of other cooling facilities, such as water fountains in public spaces, may also increase health risks during extreme heat events.
  • Current awareness and knowledge of risks to health from extreme heat events and about protective measures among public and social service agencies is low and needs to be increased.

Next Steps

The results from these studies informed the development of the City of Windsor’s 2012 and 2020 Climate Adaptation Plan, identifying actions that should be taken to reduce the impacts of extreme heat on local residents.