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Global warming poses a greater health risk to low-income populations in Los Angeles where residents lack the means to cool their homes. Researchers at USC said this month they are looking at ways to help those dense urban areas prepare for future heat waves.

The study published May 19 emphasized that increasingly hot cities pose serious challenges that disproportionately impact underserved communities, such as those in South Los Angeles. Already, heat is a big killer-accounting for more deaths each year in the United States than storms, floods and lightning combined.

The United Nations reports thousands of heat-related deaths or hospitalizations annually, and extreme temperature events are growing in intensity, frequency and duration. Last year was the second hottest year on record, according to the World Meteorological Organization.

USC’s research team looked at how residential electricity use may increase in a warming world where a growing number of people live in metro areas, according to Kelly Sanders, an author of the study and associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.

The study utilized smart meter data for 180,476 households in Southern California. Researchers quantified the increases in residential electricity use per degree of warming for various census tracts, analyzing 3 billion electrical consumption records. They also estimated the prevalence of air conditioning units, which showed that the units are less common in poorer census tracts.

“Our research suggests that more than half (55 percent) of the census tracts identified as most vulnerable are expected to experience more than 16 extreme heat days above 95 (degrees) per year by the end of the century,” said George Ban-Weiss, an author of the study and professor of civil and environmental engineering at USC Viterbi.

Many communities clustered in the southern portion of the county-including Lynwood, Compton, Inglewood and South Gate-lack the advantages to cope with hot temperatures found in other parts of the region, researchers said. The study underscores a growing body of research that shows the uneven impacts of global warming.

“The findings are useful from a policy perspective because they give policymakers information to direct resources-such as public funding, weatherization programs and cooling centers-towards the vulnerable populations that will be most negatively affected by extreme events in the future,” Sanders said. “We hope that our work can be used to direct resources towards building resilience to warming in the vulnerable communities that might suffer most.”