ASU researchers help prepare for Arizona's killer heat

May 12, 2014

Heat killed 139 people in Arizona in 2013. The best way to reduce that number is to be prepared. A new report, The Trend in Morbidity and Mortality from Exposure to Excessive Natural Heat in Arizona, shows heat is linked to an average of 118 deaths every year since 2000. It also shows that men account for seven of every 10 heat deaths in Arizona.

The National Weather Service says the beginning of our summer will be even hotter than normal this year. woman drinking water in the heat Download Full Image

Researchers at Arizona State University are part of a multi-agency team that is providing heat resources for people in need and working to determine causes of heat-related illness and death. The team includes the Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS), the National Weather Service, the Phoenix Heat Relief Network, county health departments, emergency management agencies, non-profits and others. 

ASU researchers Sharon Harlan and David Hondula are contributing findings about the numbers of heat-related deaths and hospital visits, the weather conditions under which these incidents are likely to occur, and the demographic characteristics of groups who are most at risk.

“The health risks associated with high temperatures are unequally distributed across population groups,” says Harlan, a professor in ASU’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change.

Harlan leads a large study that examines the relationships between heat, socioeconomic status, land use and health in the Phoenix metropolitan area. Her research team found the highest risk of heat deaths in inner-city neighborhoods with lower household incomes, higher proportions of minorities and elderly living alone, less vegetation, and hotter microclimates. Heat deaths of homeless persons were reported primarily in the inner city. 

In 2013, 526 people were admitted to hospitals in Arizona because of heat, and 2,242 were treated in emergency rooms. Almost half of the state’s heat-related emergency department visits in 2013 were young adults between the ages of 15-44 (1,102).

“The hundred or more deaths and thousands of hospitalizations we see in our state each year associated with heat are preventable,” says Hondula, a postdoctoral fellow in ASU’s Center for Policy Informatics, part of the College of Public Programs. “Our growing capacity to analyze and collect data about how the environment impacts people enables us to enhance existing heat-health intervention strategies and design new ones.”

Hondula will work with the Maricopa County Department of Public Health and Arizona Department of Health Services this summer to evaluate the effectiveness of “cooling stations” used to provide water and refuge to people in need.

A team led by Mikhail Chester, assistant professor in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, focuses on assessing how urban form contributes to social vulnerability to heat. The team created an interactive map where people can find cooling stations in Maricopa and Los Angeles counties. You can see the map at

The ADHS offers additional information about ways to prevent, recognize and care for heat-related illnesses on their website.

“High temperatures start early in Arizona. Our most serious months for heat illness are May through September,” says Matthew Roach, ADHS Climate & Health Program manager. “People need to be prepared – be aware of temperatures, plan outdoor activities accordingly and know the symptoms of heat illnesses.”

The National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center three-month outlook calls for a greater chance of above-average temperatures for the first half of summer in much of the U.S. Southwest, including Arizona. The National Weather Service Phoenix office, ADHS, and other partner groups have teamed up to initiate the new Arizona Heat Awareness Week, running May 12-16. 

“Excessive heat in our desert climate climbs to the top of public health priorities every summer. We want to make sure people continue being active, but that they have to be smart about it,” says Will Humble, ADHS director. “We all share a community responsibility to help those in need stay cool. One way is to donate water or hold a water drive at your work. The donated water helps people who go to cooling shelters in the extreme heat.”

The website was developed with support from the National Science Foundation's Infrastructure Management and Extreme Events program (award 1335556). Harlan’s research is supported by the National Science Foundation’s Directorate for Geosciences (award 0816168). Hondula is supported by the Piper Trust Health Policy Informatics Initiative.

Director, Knowledge Enterprise Development


Grad finds passion for geography and earth sciences

May 13, 2014

Asked what especially interests him about geography, Jason Edmunds hones in on the concept of studying place and time. 

“Whether the topic is land use, demographics, or geomorphology, being able to observe, measure and analyze how phenomena in the world are distributed – and also how they change over time – is exciting and empowering,” Edmunds said. Download Full Image

He found this passion for geography after a life trajectory that led him from high school straight into the workforce, and after some years' success in the high-tech industry, with positions as a project manager, technical editor and consultant. 

However, the birth of his son in 2006, led him to reflect on education and the model he would set. After almost 13 years in high-tech, he was ready for a change. In 2010, Edmunds entered Arizona State University, with a major in geology.

As he began taking geography classes, he gravitated towards the second field, and this month will earn degrees in both geography and the geologic focus of earth and environmental sciences, as well as a certificate in Geographic Information Science (GIS). He is the first in his family to graduate from college.

“At ASU, Jason has impressed all of his professors with his preparation, precision in questions and asking for assistance, his efficiency and thorough approach to assignments, and his passion for learning,” said ASU geography professor Ron Dorn.

With his interests focusing on physical geography and geographic information science, Edmunds was invited to serve as a preceptor for the school’s introductory physical geography course. Preceptors are top-level undergraduates who support the learning of students in the class, giving them one-on-one mentoring and tutoring. His training in geomorphology led to a synergism with the climatology expertise of the graduate student teaching assistants. Result: the GPH 111 students got a great experience.

By the time Edmunds took the required geographic research methods course this semester, he had developed a passion for research, too. Dorn, who taught the course, offered students the option to carry out a research project as if they intended to publish it – and Edmunds took up the challenge.

His topic focused on a landform in the eastern half of the South Mountain Preserve in Phoenix:  an area where disk-shaped rocks litter the slopes. Edmunds tested the idea that these disks are scale invariant – in that they maintain the same basic dimensions regardless of their size.

This project evolved into research on a type of granite landform that has not been discussed in the scholarly literature and includes electron microscope analyses of how the disks form. This research will be submitted to the prestigious Earth Surface Processes and Landforms, a publication of the British Geomorphological Research Society.

Having completed a milestone of his own education, as soon as graduation ceremonies end, Edmunds will begin working with Dorn to create update and revise geography course content here at ASU, specifically as it relates to landform processes, to better fit current students’ learning styles. 

“Long-term, I plan to pursue a PhD in geography," he says. "While completing the South Mountain research project, I realized – when it's not driving me mad – I absolutely love research. The process of identifying, studying and (hopefully) explaining a mysterious attribute of the world is invigorating. I look forward to diving in deeper.”

Barbara Trapido-Lurie

research professional senior, School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning