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As temperatures rise, the White House launches new extreme heat maps

A new interactive website aims to show Americans just how hot their neighborhoods are getting, and help them prepare for even deadlier heat.

As temperatures rise, the White House launches new extreme heat maps
[Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images]

As parts of the world are boiling under record heat, and as the Biden administration’s ambitious climate plans fizzle out, the White House has rolled out a new website to help communities prepare themselves for hotter, deadlier temperatures.

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According to the site, heat.gov, more than 39 million people in the U.S. faced extreme heat alerts when it launched on Tuesday, or about one in 10 residents. As one of its several interactive maps shows, that number includes people in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where the heat index, or what it feels like outside, reached 112; but also people in typically temperate places like Portland and Seattle, with record-setting highs in the 90s—life-threatening conditions for communities not accustomed to extreme heat. After last year’s blistering heat wave in the region, the more conservative estimates put the death toll at around 200 people, and across the U.S., heat is now responsible for over 700 deaths per year, making it the deadliest form of extreme weather. But we’re just warming up.

“This summer, with its oppressive and widespread heat waves, is likely to be one of the coolest summers of the rest of our lives,” said Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo during a press briefing. “That’s pretty scary.”

With the new online portal, she said, “you could be a mom trying to decide this summer, ‘Is it safe for your kids to play outside? To go to camp?'”

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On heat.gov’s homepage, an interactive map shows the hottest areas in the U.S. on July 26. [Screenshot: heat.gov]
The site, built with data from 11 federal agencies, is aimed at local communities, businesses, and decision makers, with an emphasis on the places most impacted by extreme heat. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), those are largely Black and Native American communities, as well as poorer urban neighborhoods and very rural places. Along with daily temperature data and a range of interactive maps showing real-time and future heat trends, there are links to government and NGO resources and tips on staying cool: avoid physical activity outdoors, find a safe cool place, take cool baths, and hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.

The centerpiece are the maps and data visualizations that bring together data from various agencies. The CDC-powered Heat & Health Tracker lets you scroll back in time to see previous heat advisories—last week, half the country was under a heat advisory—and forward. Between 1976 and 2005, residents of Tulsa saw an average of 66 days a year with temperatures above 90 degrees Fahrenheit; by 2050, that number is expected to rise to 107 days. By the end of the century, the average annual temperature for the continental U.S. is projected to climb by up to 8.7 degrees Fahrenheit. July 2021 was the hottest month ever recorded on Earth.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as seen in the Heat and Health Tracker dashboard [Screenshot: heat.gov]
The Extreme Heat hub uses maps to show literal hot spots and future forecasts of heat stress combined with data on vulnerable populations, including older adults, young children, and people with disabilities. A page called The Climate Explorer lets you see charts, graphs, and maps of extreme weather events, climate changes, and high-tide flooding for any locality, along with “social vulnerability” maps based on Census data. A section devoted to urban heat islands—areas with a high ratio of asphalt to green space that can be up to 20 degrees hotter than adjacent areas on hot days—contains links to maps and information for community groups who want to apply for funding to help map their own cities.

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There are also resources for city planners, public health officials, and hospitals struggling to cope with a surge in heat-sick patients. “Currently, few health systems have heat action plans, and heat exposure is rarely integrated into real-time clinical health decision-making for patients,” Dr. Cecilia Sorensen, associate professor and director of the Global Consortium on Climate and Health Education at Columbia University, said in a statement shared by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “These new tools will allow health systems easy access to the information they need to promote climate-readiness and heat-resiliency, ultimately improving patient and community health outcomes while reducing system-wide impacts and improving the efficiency of health systems.”

The tri-state area as seen through the Climate Explorer [Screenshot: The Climate Explorer]
The website was one of the earliest initiatives of the Biden administration’s National Climate Task Force and its Working Group on Extreme Heat, one of a handful of interagency groups meant to bring together climate know-how from across the administration. The site itself was built by the National Integrated Heat Health Information System, or NIHHIS, a seven-year-old collaboration between NOAA and the CDC, with technical support from mapping company Esri. The data sets are open access, intended to boost their use by local decision makers or even app developers.

“The creation of heat.gov is an exciting milestone for this interagency program because it is now the premier starting point for decision makers and the public to find important and timely heat-related information,” Hunter Jones, climate and health project manager at the NOAA Climate Program Office, said in an email. “We look forward to working with our partner agencies to continue to improve information and resources available to support heat resilience in the future.”

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Equity in an emergency

The Biden administration’s heat maps are also being used inside the White House. Biden’s Council on Environmental Quality has been relying on extreme heat maps and other data analysis tools to more equitably dispense about $50 billion in federal climate funding, according to David Hayes, a White House climate adviser. President Biden’s Justice40 initiative, overseen by Congress, ensures that 40% of the benefits of those dollars goes to the communities that would benefit most from clean-energy projects and those predicted to be most imperiled by climate change.

Extreme heat is only one of the nasty climate change effects now roiling the country, from massive flood events and coastal erosion to deadly wildfires and drought. NOAA has been charting the climate-related carnage on its Billion Dollar Disaster site: Last year, 21 extreme weather events caused over $145 billion in damage and over a thousand deaths. But, Hayes said, for every dollar of spending that is devoted to preparing for climate disasters, 10 to 11 are saved on post-disaster recovery.

“Let’s spend this money wisely at the local level where one size does not fit all, where disadvantaged communities in particular have to be paid attention to,” Hayes told a conference earlier this month.

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The new website launches a week after Democrats failed to strike a deal on climate with West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, who recently rejected plans to include climate provisions in a broader spending bill. That disappointment, on top of a recent Supreme Court decision that curbed the EPA’s ability to regulate carbon emissions, deflated Biden’s ambitious plans for addressing some of the worst effects of climate change.

Still, Biden has vowed to continue pushing his climate agenda. In a series of executive orders last week, his administration directed $2.3 billion to FEMA’s resilient infrastructure program, which helps communities prepare for climate disasters, expanded the low-income energy assistance program to include cooling centers and energy-efficient air conditioners, and instructed the Interior Department to propose the first wind-energy sites in the Gulf of Mexico. Previously, Biden suggested he could declare an official climate emergency, which would unleash billions more in funding and enable the use of the Defense Production Act to ramp up production of renewable energy systems.

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“I have a responsibility to act with urgency and resolve when our nation faces clear and present danger, and that’s what climate change is about,” Biden said last week at Brayton Point, a former coal-fired power plant in Somerset, Massachusetts. “It is literally, not figuratively, a clear and present danger. The health of our citizens in our communities is literally at stake.”

• Read more: Some animals get dangerously hot when they have sex—they might be the ones that survive in a warming world

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About the author

Alex is a contributing editor at Fast Company, the founding editor and editor at large of Motherboard at Vice, and a freelance writer and producer with a focus on the intersections of science, technology, media, politics, and culture.

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