U of T Scarborough professor discusses ways Toronto deals with extreme heat

Karen Smith portrait
Karen Smith is part of a team looking at how Toronto is able to cope with extreme heat events (Photo by Don Campbell)

Liliana Bechtold

On the heels of last week’s heatwave, U of T Scarborough and School of Cities researcher Karen Smith spoke to several Toronto news outlets about the city’s ability to handle the heat.

Part of a team addressing climate change, extreme heat, and human mortality with funding from the School of Cities Urban Challenge Grant, Smith is working to develop meaningful indicators of extreme heat events in Toronto.  

Different areas of the city can feel completely different during extreme heat events, Smith points out, and while access to green space and proximity to the lake can determine how well a community bears heat, social factors are just as important. Overall, elderly and low-income communities are the most affected by the heat.

Smith, an assistant professor in the department of physical & environmental sciences, identifies neighborhoods like Jane and Finch or Thornecliffe Park as examples of areas less well-equipped for heatwaves. “We are looking at this from a climate justice perspective,” she told 640am Toronto. “In this context, that’s really about responding to and adapting to climate change in a way that addresses these disproportionate impacts in vulnerable communities.”  

The heatwave’s effects on Toronto follows a number of issues raised earlier in the summer about the city’s ability to handle the heat. At City Hall, Councillors Josh Matlow and Mike Layton moved a motion looking into the high number of the city’s public water fountains and washrooms remaining closed well into June, and the city’s 2022 Heat Relief Strategy warned that the city will need to prepare for hotter days for longer stretches in the future. While we currently have around 12 thirty-degree-plus days during summer, Smith told Global News, in thirty years the city could be looking at over 30 days in that range, and as many as 60 a summer by the end of the century.  

By looking at historical trends and projecting future changes in the frequency, intensity, and duration of heatwaves, Smith’s Urban Challenge Grant research project aims to provide information that can guide public health policy and community healthcare in the city.  

The keys to keeping cool during these periods, she says, are access and community support. While the city has resources like air-conditioned spaces, cooling centers, and pools with extended hours, making sure that people can connect with those services is essential. Torontonians can help out in a heatwave by having a system to check in on elderly neighbors and those vulnerable to the heat or planning to assist community members with accessing resources.  

The Urban Challenge Grand funds research proposals related to the themes of climate and justice in the city. For the 2022-2023 year, over 500,000 in grants has been awarded to interdisciplinary research teams representing 27 departments across 3 campuses. Learn more about this year’s Urban Challenge Grants, including Karen Smith’s project, here.