How urbanization and deforestation affect climate

Dutch Caribbean Nature Alliance (DCNA), Utrecht University, University of Aruba
22-JUN-2024 - The University of Aruba and Utrecht University recently published their 2024 collection of research papers addressing challenges faced in Aruba. One hot topic this year was presented by Shanisse Franken, concerns how urbanization and deforestation can impact the Dutch Caribbean by creating urban heat islands.

Tropical dry forests, such as those in the Dutch Caribbean, play a vital role in protecting thousands of species, providing food, medicine, and supporting local livelihoods. However, unlike their more famous counterparts, the tropical rainforests, these dry forests often don’t get the attention they deserve. This inattention has led to widespread deforestation, and Aruba is no exception. Much of this deforestation is due to the need for more housing, jobs, and tourism infrastructure. 

Urban heat islands 

Oranjestad, ArubaWhen forests are cleared for construction, the environment suffers. The soil quality degrades, emissions increase, and natural green spaces are replaced by asphalt and buildings. This transformation leads to the creation of 'urban heat islands' (UHIs), where urban areas become significantly warmer than their rural surroundings. These UHIs can cause thermal discomfort, health issues, and even fatalities. Urban areas like Oranjestad in Aruba, with their dense buildings and limited vegetation, are particularly susceptible. 

Investigating the Heat 

To understand the impact of urbanization and deforestation on Aruba’s climate, researchers are examining land surface temperatures (LST) using satellite data. The goal is to determine if and where UHIs are forming in Aruba and to explore how urbanization affects these temperatures. 

Using satellite data and tools like Google Earth Engine, researchers can map out vegetation and temperature changes over time, providing a clearer picture of how urbanization is impacting Aruba’s climate. 

The bigger picture 

Planting trees can help to cool urban areas, Oranjestad, Aruba

Urban heat islands pose various challenges. They can worsen respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, increase energy consumption for cooling, and negatively affect water quality, impacting aquatic life. Fortunately, there are ways to mitigate these effects: 

  • Increase vegetation: planting more trees, removing tiles from the garden and replacing them with flowers or other native vegetation and creating green spaces can help to cool urban areas. 
  • Use reflective materials: using materials that reflect rather than absorb heat can reduce temperatures. 
  • Promote natural ventilation: designing buildings and cities to enhance airflow can help dissipate heat. 
  • Implement cool roofs: using roofing materials that reflect sunlight can keep buildings cooler. 

By understanding and addressing the formation of UHIs, Aruba can develop strategies to manage its urban growth while preserving its natural landscapes. This approach not only helps to mitigate climate change but also ensures a healthier environment for future generations. 

Text: DCNA, Utrecht University and University of Aruba
Images: Kaique Rocha; Falco; Jamie Tudor