Doctoral Dissertations

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



Major Professor

Kelsey Ellis

Committee Members

Sally Horn, Jiangang Chen, Isabel Munoz


Urban areas are warmer than rural areas because urban landscapes disrupt the movement of energy, wind, and water, effectively trapping more heat near the surface. Urban resident heat exposure is a growing concern as climate change is expected to exacerbate urban heat. Exposure to excessive heat can result in heat-health effects, such as heat stroke, and comorbidities, such as heart attacks. Understanding who is exposed to heat can pinpoint where adaption resources are most needed. The purpose of this research was to use a comprehensive approach to assess how residents of Knoxville, Tennessee, vary in their exposure to, perceptions of, and adaptation to heat exposure. To do this, I 1) evaluated neighborhood-level weather data to quantify microclimate variability, 2) assessed lifestyle surveys and individually collected temperature and humidity data to evaluate who is most exposed to dangerous levels of heat and why, and 3) analyzed mixed-methods surveys to understand how urban residents describe, perceive, and adapt to heat.Urban neighborhoods had different microclimates; specifically, areas with greater vegetation reported higher heat indices. Participant heat exposure, as measured by heat index, was not well-represented by airport conditions, with participants usually being less exposed than the airport weather station, especially during the daytime and during a heatwave. Because ambient heat indices are highest during the day, it is likely that participants employed effective adaption actions to avoid heat during a heatwave, reducing their individual exposure. Some participants, however, were more exposed at night and during non-heatwave conditions, likely indicating that buildings retained heat or less adaptive actions were taken during these times despite participants being exposed to dangerous levels of heat. The heat adaption actions that participants took to reduce their vulnerability to heat-health effects were related to their income, educational background, perception of heat danger, and previous heat-health issues. Participants were less likely to take adaption actions if they did not feel that they were at risk for heat-health issues or were unable to alter their schedules. This work contributes to a small research base that assesses neighborhood- and individual-level heat exposure to understand heat inequality in an urban area.

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