NOAA Brings Heat Island Data to Life With Maps, VR

NOAA Brings Heat Island Data to Life With Maps, VR

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is working with cities to use visualizations to make urban heat island data more accessible. For Washington, D.C., this work led to a virtual reality experience.

Thermometer displaying high temperature over 100 degrees F. Blue sky behind it.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is offering a new perspective on urban heat islands (UHI), layering maps, heat data and even virtual reality in data visualizations.

Government agencies are staffing up to combat increasing instances of extreme heat, offering resources to plan for extreme heat and other climate resilience needs.

What is a UHI? As detailed on, the term refers to cities getting warmer than nearby rural areas. Some causes of this effect are thought to be dark surfaces that store heat, lack of trees and vegetation, tall buildings and waste heat. And according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 80 percent of Americans live in urban areas.
To better understand and share UHI data through mapping, NOAA Climate Program Office and CAPA Strategies have partnered with cities around the United States.

Rafael de Ameller, lead for the NOAA Environmental Visualization Lab, explained that the lab was originally tasked by the agency’s Climate Program Office to get UHI data and make it readily available in a searchable and interactive way.All the geospatial data from the UHI mapping campaigns are hosted by NOAA using the ArcGIS server from Esri. NOAA is now working with over 60 communities to make these data sets available, and starting to expand internationally.

Screenshot of, which lists 2017-2022 locations of NOAA's UHI mapping campaign.
Screenshot of, which lists 2017-2022 locations of NOAA’s UHI mapping campaign.

Cities are continuously applying to be part of the process, said Morgan Zabow, who works in the NOAA Climate Program Office. The next cities that NOAA will be mapping will be announced in March, she said.

Zabow explained that the program is part of the National Integrated Heat Health Information System (NIHHIS), which was founded in 2015 by NOAA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It includes nine federal agencies looking to address heat health through interagency collaboration.

The UHI mapping campaign program was initiated in 2017. Importantly, Zabow noted that it is a citizen science project, using sensors attached to community volunteers’ cars to capture data including air temperature and humidity.

“It’s people from these communities who are volunteering to be a part of our program,” she said, noting that not only does this help integrate and educate them about where the hottest neighborhoods within the community are located, but it is also informing them in a way that enables collaboration with local decision-makers to implement solutions.

According to Eric Hackathorn, program manager and 3D web designer for the agency, virtual reality is a small part of a much larger project. The experience takes users to five points in Washington, D.C., comparing temperatures, home prices and other information.

Because of data the city has available in its open data portal on 3D buildings in the city, this collaboration led to a virtual reality visualization.

Screenshot of NOAA UHI Virtual Reality (VR) Quest 2 tour recording for Washington DC.
Screenshot of NOAA UHI Virtual Reality (VR) Quest 2 tour recording for Washington DC.

“Right now, this is very much a kind of a data visualization, a tour of the city,” Hackathorn said.

However, there is a possibility for the tool to evolve and be more interactive in the future, whether that may include the ability to plant trees or paint roofs white to see the impact of various actions on local temperature. Hackathorn believes these interactions could help further engage the community and help the virtual experience become a public outreach tool or help support decision-making.

“There’s a big gap between data information and education, so it was an attempt to try to bridge that gap and try to offer something that’s accessible for any person to understand what’s happening,” explained Juan Pablo Hurtado, who is also part of the NOAA Environmental Visualization Lab and is the Science On a Sphere manager at NOAA headquarters.

Through the data available, Hurtado underlined that every city can tell their own story on their own terms, highlighting things most relevant to their specific community. For example, Hurtado cited work NOAA did with the city of Richmond, Va., that revealed a strong correlation between the temperature of neighborhoods and historic redlining.

And in better understanding the impact but what different communities are facing, decision-makers can take action to mitigate extreme heat, Zabow explained.

She cited several examples of cities that have used these data maps to inform their decisions. For example, Honolulu, Hawaii, leveraged the maps to implement a 10,000-tree planting strategy. King County, Wash., home to Seattle, used the maps to implement its new extreme heat mitigation strategy.

“It’s a lot of different ways that the data has been implemented — a lot based on what’s best for that particular community and based on what the data showed,” Zabow said.

Source: NOAA Brings Heat Island Data to Life With Maps, VR (

, ,
No Comments

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.