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How Trees Can Make South Florida More Resilient Against Rising Temperatures

Volunteers from Bacardi worked with Miami-Dade County employees and the non-profit American Forests to plant trees in Losner Park in unincorporated Miami-Dade.
Kate Stein
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Global warming is likely contributing to record-breaking heat in South Florida: 2015 and 2017 tied for the hottest yearsince regional record-keeping began in the 1800s, and temperatures in the early part of 2018 are setting records, too.

Without global cooperation, the region can't significantly slow global warming. So many communities are instead thinking about how to adapt to hotter weather. One way is by planting trees to shade sidewalks and bus stops, and in neighborhoods where people might not be able to afford much air conditioning.

"'If you have one tree to plant, plant it in a city,'" said Ian Leahy, director of Urban Forest Programs for American Forests, quoting urban forestry expert David Nowak. "It has this impact that goes beyond planting a tree anywhere else."

Leahy was in unincorporated South Dade on Wednesday to help with a tree planting at a new park. It's part of Miami-Dade's effort to plant a million trees countywide by 2020 -- one example of resilience efforts that link climate change impacts to public health and urban land use.

"High heat can cause severe health impacts and even death. We saw that with Irma in communities up north," said Jane Gilbert, chief resilience officer for the city of Miami, referring to deaths at a Broward nursing home that lost power to its air conditioning system. While trees aren't substitutes for air conditioning, they can help lower outdoor temperatures by a few degrees. Gilbert says studies of Miami have shown that areas with fewer trees -- which are mostly low-income -- can be two or three degrees hotter than other places.

"It’s really critical that we reduce what we call the 'heat island effect' in our most urban areas," she said.

Miami-Dade's Tree Week continues through Friday, and includes tree planting efforts with volunteers from Bacardi, Coca-Cola and Bank of America. A workshop for Miami-Dade commissioners on Friday focuses on the urban tree canopy and hurricane impacts; you can learn more here

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Kate Stein can't quite explain what attracts her to South Florida. It's more than just the warm weather (although this Wisconsin native and Northwestern University graduate definitely appreciates the South Florida sunshine). It has a lot to do with being able to travel from the Everglades to Little Havana to Brickell without turning off 8th Street. It's also related to Stein's fantastic coworkers, whom she first got to know during a winter 2016 internship.Officially, Stein is WLRN's environment, data and transportation journalist. Privately, she uses her job as an excuse to rove around South Florida searching for stories à la Carl Hiaasen and Edna Buchanan. Regardless, Stein speaks Spanish and is always thrilled to run, explore and read.