Tree-planting program launched to mitigate severe Las Vegas ‘heat island effect’
Incorporating “green infrastructure,” such as planting trees, is part of the city's overall heat mitigation and urban resilience strategy, said City of Las Vegas urban forester Bradley Daseler.
As the Las Vegas Valley experiences record-breaking heat each summer, research shows temperatures are not distributed evenly, with poor or minority neighborhoods often bearing the brunt of heat waves.
Communities like east Las Vegas experience higher temperatures than other neighborhoods because of urban heat island effects.
The urban heat island effect is separate from climate change — it’s the result of higher temperatures in cities due to the abundance of blacktop and pavement. But climate change intensifies the effect by raising summer highs and creating more severe heat waves.
With temperatures rising an average of 5.76% since 1970, Las Vegas is the fastest-warming city in the U.S. according to 2019 Climate Central research.
One obvious solution being pushed by the City of Las Vegas: planting close to 60,000 trees across the city by 2050.
On Wednesday Mayor Carolyn G. Goodman announced the launch of the City of Las Vegas Tree Initiative to combat the urban heat island effect in the city.
Incorporating “green infrastructure,” such as planting trees, is part of the city’s overall heat mitigation and urban resilience strategy, said City of Las Vegas urban forester Bradley Daseler.
Over the weekend Daseler said the city will plant the first 250 park-ready trees where they are most lacking.
A recent study by American Forests examining tree canopies across the country underscored how east Las Vegas residents are negatively affected by the heat island effect because there is significantly lower tree canopy, said Daseler.
“That’s part of the initiative, to get trees into lower income areas,” Daseler said.
The study found that neighborhoods with a majority of people of color have 33% less tree canopy on average than majority white communities. And neighborhoods with 90% or more of their residents living in poverty have 41% less tree canopy than communities with only 10% or less of the population in poverty.
Based on 2020 census data, over 27% of east Las Vegas residents identify as Latino and another 10% identify as Asian-American. The median household income for people living in east Las Vegas is around $32,000 a year, with 15% experiencing poverty. Most residents, 67%, also report living in rentals.
In Southern Nevada, more than 560,000 trees will need to be planted to reach “tree equity,” or the number of trees needed so that all residents can benefit from shade, cooler temperatures and reductions in carbon.
The City of Las Vegas governs about 84,000 acres, and tree canopies cover about 7,665 acres or 9%, but as temperatures rise much of that canopy coverage is also at risk.
There are “trees that we are seeing that are not as tolerant of the higher heats and are going to struggle as we move into more watering restrictions,” said Daseler.
Finding the trees that can survive future climate hikes and water restrictions is part of the city’s work, said Daseler. Ash, Catalpas, and Purple-Leaf Plum trees —all planted in Las Vegas in mass—have not “proven to be long term trees.”
“With the nursery we’re experimenting with different species from different areas with similar climates or hotter climates to try and put trees in we think are going to be successful as it gets hotter and as there’s less water available.”
Some trees with significant canopy have proved to be compatible with the Las Vegas climate, including North Indian rosewood, and some varieties of acacia, eucalyptus, and mesquite.
“We’re not over-investing in one species,” Daseler said. “We’re making educated assessments in how we’re moving forward. We hope to find a great tree that really performs well here, or ten hopefully.”
Finding solutions to the heat island effect is especially important in Las Vegas, the city with the largest difference between urban and rural temperatures in the country.
Research has also indicated that in the last 10 summers, cities were 2.4°F hotter than their rural counterparts. Las Vegas, however, fared far worse. In the summer, Las Vegas experiences temperatures up to 24°F higher in the city than in nearby rural areas.
Las Vegas ranked as the most intense urban heat island in the United States in both daytime and nighttime metrics between 2004 and 2013, according to climate scientists.
Extreme heat can result in various illnesses or even death, in some cases. Scientists from the Desert Research Institute found that heat-related deaths in Clark County have significantly increased over the last few years, in large part due to the rise in extreme heat and the resulting heat island effect.
“Trees are neutral, they are bipartisan, and beneficial to everyone,” said Goodman.
The tree initiative is being financially supported by private sector donations to the Mayor’s Fund for Las Vegas LIFE, a non-governmental organization coordinated by the city and financially administered by the nonprofit Nevada Community Foundation.
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