Turn the heat down! Predicting heat waves in Maine

Written by Jackie Anderson, OneHealth REU program 2022 participant

Hello everyone! My name is Jackie Anderson, I’m a rising sophomore at Union College majoring in Mechanical Engineering with a minor in Environmental Science. I’ve always been interested in learning about the ways that humans interact with and impact their environments, and I am planning on structuring my career path in the field of environmental engineering to find sustainable solutions to these problems. I was particularly drawn to the REU ANEW program because of its interdisciplinary approach to environmental topics and connections to human health.

Anderson poses with a wood sign at the summit of Mount Katahdin.This summer, I am working with Dr. Sean Birkel at the Maine Climate Change Institute to develop updated projections for instances of high-heat events in Maine. While it may not seem like Maine would be at high risk for heat waves, the rise of global greenhouse gas emissions is steadily increasing temperatures worldwide and leading to more frequent extreme weather events. Annual mean temperatures in Maine have increased by 3°F since 1985, and temperatures are predicted to rise an additional 2-10°F by 2100 depending on the level of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere.  As the climate in Maine becomes increasingly warmer, the frequency, intensity, and duration of heat waves are expected to increase which would impact human populations and their environments in highly damaging ways. Health risks associated with these heat events include increased heat-related illness and morbidity, facilitation of vector-borne diseases (e.g., Lyme, West Nile Virus), and a strain and possible failure of the electrical grid due to increased demand for air conditioning.

For my project, I will be using the North American Land Data Assimilation System (NLDAS), which is a gridded data product, to analyze climate data from various locations in Maine. I will be working with python and using NLDAS along with historical station data to calculate threshold exceedances for minimum temperatures, maximum temperatures and heat indexes at each location. To develop projections for future high-heat events, I will then apply a warming factor to these results to calculate how threshold exceedances will change with respect to Maine’s warming climate. I will be developing estimates for both the 2050s and the 2100s and creating visualizations that communicate these results in a way that is effective and accessible to the public. By developing updated and accurate projections for these high-heat events, residents of Maine can be more adequately prepared to handle them which can significantly minimize negative outcomes.

Throughout the program so far, I’ve had the opportunity to improve my skills in a variety of areas through weekly professional development meetings and I’ve gained incredibly valuable research experience through my work with Dr. Birkel. I’ve made some of my favorite memories here in Maine this summer, from hiking Mt. Katahdin and seeing a moose at sunrise to watching the sunset on Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park. My peers in this program are incredibly supportive and have made this experience one that I will never forget. I strongly recommend applying to anyone who is interested in this experience.