University of Texas at Austin


Navigating Extreme Heat in Texas: Insights from Planet Texas 2050

By Aira Balasubramanian, Rebecca Riley

Published March 14, 2024

Katherine Brown presenting at Planet Texas 2050

Extreme heat poses significant challenges to communities across Texas, impacting public health, infrastructure, and ecosystems. On February 28, the Oden Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin hosted a panel discussion as part of the ongoing Planet Texas 2050 initiative, exploring interdisciplinary approaches to address the complexities of extreme heat in the state. The panel featured two distinguished faculty members: Katherine Brown and Dev Niyogi, both affiliated with the Oden Institute.

Katherine Brown, a senior research fellow at the Oden Institute, brought to the discussion her extensive background in interdisciplinary research, particularly in the field of infectious diseases. Growing up in Austin's underserved east side, Brown has a deeply personal connection to the impacts of urban heat on low-income communities. Her research focuses on understanding how warmth, heat, and environmental conditions influence the spread of infectious diseases.

"Diseases that humans have lived with for thousands of years can be aggravated by climate change," Brown emphasized, highlighting the changing distribution of diseases worldwide due to climate variability. She stressed the importance of recognizing the dynamic interplay between heat, warming, flooding, and precipitation in shaping disease transmission patterns, especially for viral and bacterial infections spread through environmental contact.

"In terms of many diseases, it's not just a heat wave or warming on its own. The dynamics of heat, warming, and flooding/precipitation change the distribution of diseases - especially viral and bacterial diseases spread through environmental contact," Brown elaborated, stressing the need for a holistic understanding of the factors driving disease transmission.

Brown's insights shed light on the increasing risk of infectious diseases such as Lyme disease and West Nile virus due to climate change. Despite these challenges, Brown urged for a balanced approach, advocating for preparedness and evidence-based decision-making rather than succumbing to fear. "We should keep calm and be prepared," she advised, emphasizing the importance of learning from areas already coping with disease outbreaks and managing risk effectively.

Drawing from her own experiences growing up in Austin, Brown highlighted the need to raise awareness among new residents about local ecological risks, particularly regarding vector-borne diseases like Chagas disease spread by kissing bugs. She emphasized the significance of modeling interactions between extreme heat and disease spread on both global and local scales, acknowledging the inherent challenges in sourcing data for such analyses.

Complementing Brown's insights, Dev Niyogi, an affiliated faculty member at the Oden Institute and professor at the Jackson School of Geosciences, provided valuable perspectives on the data challenges associated with assessing and addressing extreme heat impacts. Niyogi emphasized the critical role of local-scale data in informing effective decision-making, noting the surprising data paucity in Austin, particularly regarding temperature and heat exposure.


Dev Niyogi presenting at Planet Texas 2050

"At 102, we're not in a heat wave. At 103, we are in a heat wave. Something magical happens when we cross a certain threshold," Niyogi remarked, underscoring the importance of precise data in identifying heat wave thresholds and informing targeted interventions. He highlighted ongoing efforts to create local tools, such as the thermal scale of Austin, which provides detailed temperature data to identify high-risk areas for heat-related illnesses and prioritize interventions like heat shelters and tree planting.

Niyogi also emphasized the need for engineering solutions alongside nature-based approaches to mitigate the urban heat island effect. Reflective coatings on pavements, for example, could help reduce heat absorption and alleviate heat stress in urban areas. However, Niyogi stressed that evaluating the effectiveness of such solutions requires robust data collection and analysis.

"The reality is that climate mitigation and carbon reduction solutions are going to come 50, 70, 80 years from now. We must do that, but the problem is also now. We need people to work on climate adaptation solutions now," Niyogi emphasized, highlighting the urgent need for proactive measures to address the immediate impacts of extreme heat.


The panel discussion illuminated the collaborative efforts underway at UT Austin and across Texas to address the multifaceted challenges of extreme heat. By leveraging interdisciplinary expertise, innovative tools, and local data-driven approaches, researchers and communities are working together to build resilient systems and mitigate the impacts of climate change on public health and well-being. As both Brown and Niyogi emphasized, proactive measures and informed decision-making are key to navigating the complex landscape of extreme heat in Texas and beyond.