Human | Nature

Monday, October 22, 2012
By Sharon Harlan and Diane Boudreau

There are more than seven billion people on Earth today! Every one of us wants to eat food, drink water, wear clothes, travel around and get rid of trash. All of these things have an effect on the environment around us. But we don’t fully understand what all of those effects are or how they will change the future.

Some scientists call this the Anthropocene Epoch. It’s their way of saying that people are driving many big changes in the planet’s natural systems. For example, there are more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. There are fewer forests and wilderness lands. And coral reefs are disappearing from the oceans.


Anthropocene comes from the Greek word “anthropos,” which means “human.” The suffix “cene” means it’s part of the Cenozoic Era, the most recent geologic time period.

Can you think of any other words that start with “anthropo?” What do they mean?


Scientists have known about many of these changes for decades. But they are only beginning to discover how closely connected people are to nature. They have created a new kind of science called coupled natural and human systems. They use it to study complex environmental challenges that affect our planet and all the living things on it.

The new science traces the human causes of environmental changes. It also studies how the environment affects us, in turn. The two-way link is called feedback.

Climate is a good example of a feedback loop. Human activities change the climate both globally and locally. And the changing climate affects how much water we have, what kinds of crops we can grow, how much energy we use and how healthy we are.

Global climate change affects the whole planet. But on a smaller scale, cities are getting hotter than the areas around them. Some are becoming “islands” of heat.

Phoenix, Arizona is one of these urban heat islands. In the desert wilderness, hot summer days turn into cooler nights after the sun sets. But in the city, human-made structures such as buildings, roads and parking lots hold onto daytime heat, releasing it slowly. As a result, temperatures stay high even in the dark of night.

In addition, cars, factories and even air conditioners release extra heat into the environment, adding to the heat island effect.

A team of researchers led by scientists at Arizona State University (ASU) is studying the heat island in the Phoenix metropolitan area. They are asking:

  • How do different kinds of land cover affect temperatures?
  • How are temperature differences among neighborhoods related to socioeconomic status?
  • How does extreme heat affect people’s health?
  • How have these relationships changed over time? How might they change in the future?
  • How can people adjust to climate in ways that are healthier for them and their environment?

Answering these questions requires information and tools from many different fields, such as ecology, sociology, geography, mathematics, computer modeling, geophysics and medicine. There are more than 20 scientists and educators working on the “Urban Vulnerability to Climate Change” project, or UVCC for short.

Their research will help people in Phoenix as well as other cities that are becoming heat islands.


What is socioeconomic status?
Social scientists study many aspects of people, such as culture and behavior. One measurement they use is socioeconomic status (SES). SES describes the social and economic position of a family or a neighborhood compared to others. SES is often measured as a combination of:

  • Family income
  • Education level (adult head of family)
  • Occupation (adult head of family)