Extreme Heat, Digitization, and Resilient Water Systems
This July, millions of Americans sweat out a seemingly interminable heat wave.
Large areas of the United States have experienced temperatures exceeding 100 degrees Fahrenheit for nearly a month, affecting more than 100 million people. Phoenix, Arizona faced yet another "air fryer" week of temperatures over 110 degrees – after more than 25 consecutive days of excessive heat.
Last weekend, the United States National Weather Service predicted that the "dangerous, long-lasting, and record-breaking heatwave" will continue over the southwestern states until this week, when temperatures will "remain hot, but return closer to average."
The unrelenting heat in July has sparked conversations about global warming, our capability to deal with hotter, more humid weather, and how we can ensure we have a resilient water system able to help us cope.
Why does it feel hotter than ever?
A phenomenon called a heat dome has plagued the US since June.
Heat domes develop when a ridge of high pressure combines with an attenuated jet stream. Or, according to the Royal Meteorological Society, “when an area of high pressure stays over the same area for days or even weeks, trapping very warm air underneath - rather like a lid on a pot.”
What has exacerbated the effects of this summer's heat dome over the U.S. is the humidity induced by the unusually high sea surface temperatures along the Gulf and south-east Atlantic coastline.
This moisture level also restricts how low night-time temperatures can fall, so there is no relief from the oppressive conditions—even in the early morning hours.
In cities relief from heat can be even more difficult to find due to the urban heat island effect. This is the phenomenon that allows infrastructure to absorb heat, causing urban areas to be 1 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit higher than rural areas. The effect is most pronounced during the day, but delayed emission of heat from the city's structures at night can keep cities considerably hotter than their surroundings.
Unfortunately, access to water is not a given, a disparity that is more prevalent in cities. A study found that between 2013 and 2017 in the US, about 1.1 million people lacked a piped water connection – and nearly half of those people were in the 50 largest metropolitan areas of the US.
The lack of access to water is an urgent issue, especially in light of heat extremes, according to the Water Center at the University of Pennsylvania, a research and policy hub that supports communities in meeting critical water challenges.
“Water is essential for hydrating and cooling always but especially during extreme heat,” said Ellen Kohler, Director of Applied Research and Programs at the Water Center at the University of Pennsylvania. “Too many people in our cities either don’t have access to water because they are homeless, their homes don’t have functioning water infrastructure or their water has been shut off due to inability to pay the water bills – the number is likely more than one million people including young children and elderly across the country experiencing extreme heat.”
If greenhouse gas emissions are not substantially reduced, average daily high and low temperatures will rise by at least 5 degrees Fahrenheit in many regions by mid-century and by 10 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century.
By mid-century, the National Climate Assessment predicts 20 to 30 additional days exceeding 90 degrees Fahrenheit in most regions.
When combined with excessive humidity, heat waves are more hazardous. The heat index measures the temperature and humidity in conjunction. A recent study predicts that the annual number of days with a heat index of 100 degrees Fahrenheit or higher will double, and the number of days with a heat index of 105 degrees Fahrenheit or higher will triple, compared to the end of the 20th century.
Going digital to meet real-time water needs
Methods of coping in the moment with brutally hot weather are well-known: Stay hydrated and stay indoors.
But building a resilient water system that will help us when extreme heat strikes is more complex.
To make our water systems adaptable and egalitarian, digital technology can be vital.
One way digital technologies bolster water resilience is through real-time data collection and monitoring. Smart sensors installed in water distribution networks, treatment plants, and storage facilities continuously gather data on water quantity, quality, and usage patterns. This data provides valuable insights into the health of our water systems, enabling proactive decision-making. During heatwaves and health crises, these digital systems can swiftly detect potential issues, such as supply shortages or contamination, allowing water authorities to respond promptly and prevent widespread disruption. For example, Bentley’s digital twin technology can track the conditions of water facilities and help in planning a response to failures or shortcomings.
Moreover, digital technologies can facilitate the integration of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning algorithms into water management. AI-driven predictive models can anticipate fluctuations in water demand during extreme weather events or emergencies, enabling utilities to plan and allocate resources more efficiently. By optimizing water distribution and reducing wastage, these systems ensure that critical water supplies reach those in need, regardless of their socioeconomic status.
Access for all
Equitable access to water is a cornerstone of a just society, yet marginalized communities often bear the brunt of water scarcity during emergencies. Digital technologies offer a way to rectify this disparity.
Mobile applications and online platforms can be used to disseminate real-time information about water availability, conservation tips, and emergency response plans directly to residents, bridging the information gap between authorities and communities. Additionally, smart meters and usage tracking systems can enable water utilities to implement tiered pricing structures based on consumption, incentivizing responsible water use, and supporting lower-income households.
Crucially, digital technologies also empower citizens to actively participate in water management. Community engagement platforms can foster dialogue between residents and water authorities, enabling them to collaboratively develop sustainable solutions for water challenges. When communities have a stake in water decisions, the outcomes are more likely to address their unique needs and concerns, fostering a sense of ownership and trust in the water system.
Another critical aspect of water resilience during emergencies is the ability to diversify water sources. Digital technologies can help integrate alternative water sources, such as rainwater harvesting, wastewater recycling, and desalination, into the water supply chain. By tapping into these resources, cities can reduce their dependency on traditional water sources and build resilience against potential disruptions.
However, the adoption of digital technologies for water resilience and equitable access must be accompanied by addressing certain challenges. Data privacy and cybersecurity concerns need to be carefully managed to protect sensitive information and prevent potential misuse. Additionally, investing in digital infrastructure may be a significant upfront cost for some municipalities, requiring financial support and cooperation from various stakeholders.
Planning for a heated environment
Waiting until we are in an extreme heat event to design and build infrastructure to deal with heat is too late. It is in planning and design that Bentley digital design tools can make a major contribution to minimizing the effects of such conditions.
Digital technologies offer immense potential to safeguard the resilience of our water systems and ensure equitable access to water during heatwaves and health emergencies. By embracing real-time data, AI-driven solutions, and community engagement platforms, we can transform our water networks into adaptable and inclusive structures.
As we confront the challenges of a changing climate and global health crises, it is essential to harness the power of digital technologies to secure the water resources that sustain life and uphold social justice.
What is a Heat Island?
Extreme Heat Exposure: Access and Barriers to Cooling Centres — Maricopa and Yuma Counties, Arizona, 2010–2020
2021 Weather, Climate and Catastrophe Insight
What is a heat dome?
Temperature Changes in the United States
The National Climate Assessment
AR6 Synthesis Report: Climate Change 2023
Heat Waves Have Cost World Economy Trillions of Dollars
Government Affairs Overview. American Water Works Association. May 31, 2023
Heat Emergency Shows Why We Must Keep the Water Flowing. Philadelphia Inquirer. August 10, 2022. https://www.inquirer.com/opinion/commentary/philadelphia-water-department-shutoffs-heat-emergency-20220809.html
City Unveils New Water Shutoff Protections. City of Philadelphia Press Release. May 31, 2022
Geographies of insecure water access and the housing-water nexus in US cities. November 2, 2020. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.