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Alberta team building maps that show health impacts of climate change

A University of Alberta research team is creating maps that will show how different regions are impacted by climate change health hazards.

“Climate change, being so big and amorphous, it feels impossible to tackle,” said Sammy Lowe, the research lead for the Climate, Health and Environment Epidemiology Research lab (CHEER). “But, while we’re able to gauge these health impacts, there’s actually things we can do to address them today.”

The project explores how different areas are more or less vulnerable to chronic health conditions caused or exacerbated by climate hazards.

The health conditions include things like respiratory illnesses, mental health issues, cardiovascular disease and dementia. It also factors in the demographics of different areas, since socioeconomic status and age can make someone more or less at risk. And finally, the maps take into account resources in the area that help mitigate these negative impacts.

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“We take a bunch of different factors and distill them into three main what we call main domains,” Lowe explained.

Those domains are exposure, sensitivity and adaptation.

“The exposure domain is… your level of exposure to things like air pollutants, temperature, precipitation, icy conditions.

“The second domain is sensitivity. These are factors that could potentially worsen or better your exposure … like access to housing, levels of income, age distribution,” Lowe said.

“The final domain is on the flipside… adaptive capacity: your ability to mitigate some of those negative impacts. You can think of adaptive capacity as things like access to green spaces and parks or air conditioning or the number of health clinics or community services nearby.

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“If your sensitivity is really high and your exposure is high and your adaptive capacity is low, that’s kind of the worst-case scenario.”

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University of Alberta health climate change maps. Courtesy: University of Alberta

The researchers have already created a map of Edmonton as a pilot project.

“Folks, we find, that are living in the western and the southern parts of the city get a lot more exposure to smog and air pollution and that direct heat, whereas folks living closer to the river, in downtown, are actually experiencing sometimes considerably less levels of exposure,” Lowe said.

“The impacts of climate, air pollution, temperature, are not static across the city,” Lowe added. “Based on that, how can we kind of tailor approaches to help mitigate the health impacts that are maybe going to be more relevant for Westmount, or Ellerslie or north Edmonton or downtown?”

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This new project will expand on that — looking province-wide.

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“In the rural areas, we think (of) great sweeping swaths of nature and a lot of green space, so they must be doing well, but when we think about their access to health services and different mitigation abilities, that is typically a lot less prevalent in these rural areas,” Lowe explained.

“We just really want to highlight to people, but also to stakeholders, governments, health-care providers, that when we’re thinking about the health of our populations, we can’t separate that from climate. This is something that’s really relevant now and conversely, on the positive side, it’s actionable now.

“Say you have this tree-planting initiative. These specific areas seem to be where that’s going to make the most impact whereas this other area, they actually have a lot of green space, but we need to work more on the accessibility of transit to different health centres, for example.”

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All the data that goes into creating the index is publicly available. Lowe says it comes from provincial and national environmental labs, meteorological data and the Canadian census.

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The team hopes the information displayed in the maps will help as governments create policy, and to guide and inspire decisions by industry, community groups and individuals.

“I know sometimes the picture that’s painted can be a bit grim, but there are these really important, grassroots, community-level actions that we can take today, and that we are taking a lot of today, that, when scaled up to the population level, can have really positive impacts for our health,” Lowe said.

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