Quebec researcher studying concrete measures to cool highway heat islands

They don’t look high-tech but temperature sensors attached to wooden stakes along the autoroutes that criss-cross Laval may provide the data that could help the city — and eventually other municipalities — become cooler, shadier places to live.

These installations can be seen at ten different sites, along highways 13, 15, 19, and 440.

They are all part of a heat island research project being conducted by a young scientist whose goal is to soften the impact of large swaths of pavement and concrete near urban centres.

Hugo Ouellet convinced Laval and the Quebec Transport Ministry to let him install thermometer systems that continuously record the temperatures at those sites.

The project is part of his master’s degree thesis in biological sciences at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM).

“I think it’s a great start in making greener cities,” said Ouellet.

Ouellet is studying how biodiversity can reduce heat islands in highway environments. He wants to know what kind of green space is the most effective, what kind of vegetation should be planted and how the plants should be arranged.

Ouellet says highways contribute significantly to higher temperatures in neighbourhoods that are nearby — and to heat-related discomfort and illnesses.

Hugo Ouellet, right, and Alain Paquette, the professor supervising his master’s degree research, near the heat sensors. (Jessica Wu/CBC)

Reducing heat islands to improve human health

Alain Paquette, the professor at UQAM supervising Ouellet’s project, explains the negative impact of rising temperatures on people’s health is already well-documented.

“It doesn’t have to be 10 degrees. It can be just one degree higher than normal, and it will already have an effect on people’s health,” Paquette explained.

Paquette says that everyone benefits from a reduction of temperatures, but it especially helps people who already suffer from conditions relative to environmental exposures. These include asthma and oher cardiorespiratory diseases.

Paquette says lowering temperatures will also help the animals and plants that live in these environments.

Alain Paquette is supervising Ouellet’s project. (Jessica Wu/CBC)

Until now, most heat island research has concentrated on downtown areas — looking at how to offset the heat created by parking lots, schoolyards and dense construction, with trees and green spaces.

That means there is little data on heat islands near major roadways and Ouellet describes his project as “one of the first” to address the issue. There is growing interest from municipalities and Transports Québec to do something about this.

“What we need is data and information to guide, and to make it count,” said Paquette.

Thermometers attached to stakes are monitoring and recording temperatures near autoroutes in Laval. (Jessica Wu/CBC)

Ouellet says that there are plenty of potential solutions to highway heat.

Something as simple as greening the spaces near off-ramps with tree planting could be “an easy fix that will help the city a lot with heat islands.”

“I hope I’m going to see something out of it,” said Ouellet.

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