Heat Detectives Record 60 Degrees in Lithgow

heat detective Thermal camera image in Lithgow

Thermal image of a garden bed at the Hub’s carpark in December 2022 by ‘Heat Detective’ Shantelle Turkington (Images supplied). The yellow colour indicates the bark mulch which reached 61°C, while the purple areas were shaded concrete which was 22°C.

Story by Tracie McMahon

During Summer 2022/23 Western Sydney University trained residents to use thermal imaging cameras to document surface temperatures in the local landscape as part of the Heat Detective project.  The images captured temperatures varying from 20°C to over 60°C, demonstrating both the urban heat island effect and simple solutions to reduce its impact.

Key Points:

  • According to the NSW Government, heatwaves have been responsible for more human deaths in Australia than any other natural hazard, including bushfires, storms, tropical cyclones and floods.
  • Choices influenced by poor urban planning and design decisions can lead to temperatures rising significantly, impacting both community health and cost of living.
  • The urban heat island effect can be reduced by choosing appropriate vegetation, soft surfaces, and lighter colours for buildings and landscaping.

No, it’s not a typo and you are not reading about a future climate apocalypse. Sixty-degree temperatures are being recorded in Lithgow right here, right now, and it matters. More people die from heat than all other natural disasters combined, but we can all do something about preventing these deaths.

The urban heat island effect is described by Sebastian Pfautsch, Associate Professor Urban Planning and Management at Western Sydney University, as “a phenomenon whereby surface and air temperatures in built-up areas become hotter compared to nearby vegetated sites”.  It is driven by the conversion of green to grey (plants to concrete) in urbanised spaces. This can dramatically raise local temperatures during heatwaves. Sebastian says that “More people die from heat than all other natural disasters combined.”

In Lithgow, it’s usually the lack of heat we all think about, but the images produced as part of the Lithgow Transformation Hub’s three Heat Detectives workshops tell a different story.

Heat Detectives

After a cool and soggy few years, a keen group of citizen scientists enrolled themselves in these Heat Detective workshops, perhaps hoping to find some warmth in what appeared to be a cooler than average summer.

The workshops were organised by Western Sydney University’s Agnieszka (Aga) Wujeska-Klause: a research assistant working with Associate Professor Sebastian Pfautsch. Participants (the Heat Detectives) were taught to use thermal imaging equipment, and then took the equipment home to capture images of urban spaces in Lithgow over a two-week period.

Take a good look at the images below. Note the vibrant colours. Cobalt blue, tangerine orange, gold and carmine red. They are not the hues of glorious summer sunshine but a measure of urban heat captured during the height of summer 2022/2023.

Finalists in the Maldhan Ngurr Ngurra Lithgow Transformation Hub Heat Detectives Art Exhibition

Finalists in the Maldhan Ngurr Ngurra Lithgow Transformation Hub Heat Detectives Art Exhibition (Photo supplied)

At the subsequent Heat Detectives Art Exhibition, Aga explained the equipment is easy to use and learn. It comprises a tablet and a thermal heat imaging attachment. “Once people have it in their hands, they quickly realise how easy it is to use and no different to their smart phones.” It took around an hour to introduce the urban heat topic, demonstrate equipment features and how best to capture images. During the workshops, heat detectives were able to practice using the equipment, ask questions and discuss their ideas about urban heat. By the end they were ready to participate.

Three images were selected from each heat detective, based on the hottest surface they captured. Staff then selected ten finalists and their images were circulated on the Transformation Hub social media pages. The winner was selected by popular vote.

And the winner is …

Cathy Kleingeld’s winning image of the metal ruins at Blast Furnace Park measured temperatures of 57°C. She says she wanted to find the hottest thing in Lithgow and focused on images of structures and buildings, but was really surprised by the surface temperatures recorded in her own images and those of other heat detectives. 

Lithgow Transformation Hub Heat Detectives Art Exhibition winner

‘Heat Detective’ Cathy Kleingeld and the winning image taken at Blast Furnace Park (top).

Gaye Mason, another finalist, also chose structures but thought that colours would contribute to surface heat. She recorded school playground equipment measuring 55°C but says the hottest thing she found in her photography was a bare dirt patch in a green lawn.  She realised that it was the combinations of objects that contributed to temperature variability. Cathy agrees. One of her images included metal grates amongst paved areas. She had thought the metal would be hotter, but instead the pavers were. She found old bricks, like those in the Blast Furnace ruins, also had high surface temperatures, and she wondered about new bricks and how that might affect the heat in our backyards.

Gaye’s streetscape image (pictured below), which was also chosen as a finalist, demonstrates the impact of colour and structure on surface heat. The white taxi is at least ten degrees cooler than the road surface and the darker painted areas above the awning are fifteen degrees warmer than the areas under the awning.

Heat Detectives Art Exhibition

Gaye Mason’s capture of a Lithgow streetscape (images supplied)

Cathy and Gaye’s images are not only striking but data rich. As Eric Mahony, Lithgow Councillor noted: “they are art and science.” They provide information which can be used to design urban areas to minimise the urban heat island effect.

Associate Professor Pfautsch and Aga’s research indicates “collectively, dark roofs make neighbourhoods more than 3°C warmer, forcing everyone to pay more for keeping cool in summer.” Choosing colours that minimise surface temperatures also makes economic sense.

What we can all do …

And it is not just town planners and home builders who can help. Sebastian Pfautsch says there are simple things we can all do. By selecting soft green surfaces like gardens and grass rather than paved courtyards, and planting appropriate north facing trees, we can reduce urban heat. Our playgrounds and backyards should be places that people can enjoy without fear of an unintended hot surprise.

heat detective thermal camera image in Lithgow park

Thermal image of a rubber swing in an unshaded Lithgow playground by Leanne Barry. (Images supplied)

If you would like to know more, the following short clip, shown on Gardening Australia in February 2022, features Associate Professor Sebastian Pfautsch implementing his urban heat minimisation ideas to redesign a playground in Western Sydney.

Gardening Australia: Hot in the City

Watch here: https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/hot-in-the-city/13770076

The Maldhan Ngurr Ngurra Lithgow Transformation Hub repeated the Heat Detective data collection in August, this time looking for places heat escapes from our houses in Winter. A selected number of Lithgow households recorded images throughout late August to determine where heat (and heating bill dollars) was disappearing as part of the Hub’s Winter Leaks program.

Enrol in a Heat Detective Workshop

The next Heat Detective Workshop will be held on 2 March 2024: Bookings essential here

Lithgow Transformation Hub Heat Detectives Art Exhibition 2023

Attendees and finalists at the Heat Detective Art Exhibition opening. (Saaskia Girdler)

L to R: Cr. Steve Ring, Cr. Eric Mahony, Saaskia Girdler (event photographer), Cathy Kleingeld, Gaye Mason, Cr Cass Coleman.

Take Action:

  • Consider using lighter colours for roofs, walls and outside surfaces.
  • Replace concrete, bricks and pavers where possible with softer surfaces and vegetation.
  • Plant trees and put up awnings to increase shade.

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This story has been produced as part of a Bioregional Collaboration for Planetary Health and is supported by the Disaster Risk Reduction Fund (DRRF). The DRRF is jointly funded by the Australian and New South Wales governments.

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About Tracie McMahon

Tracie lives, writes and walks on the unceded lands of the Dharug, Gundungurra and Wiradjuri people. Born in Lithgow, she and her family have spent most of their lives living and working with the people and places of the Lithgow area. Her passions are nature and community, which she pursues through story, art, and volunteering in Lithgow and the Blue Mountains.

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