VR map tracks ‘silent killer’ of extreme heat
A 3-D map of Washington, D.C., overlaid with temperature data illustrates urban heat islands and shows neighborhoods that are most at risk.
In a bid to help local leaders and city planners better understand where heat islands exist, a federal agency has developed a virtual reality app that shows users temperature data of 3-D renderings of buildings, parking lots and other landmarks.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) used mapping company Esri’s ArcGIS mapping software to produce a 3-D model of Washington, D.C. The VR app gives users a bird’s eye view of the city’s hottest and coolest neighborhoods where they can see first-hand how factors like asphalt, concrete and even the lack of trees contribute to urban heat islands.
The simulation is available via the Oculus Quest VR headset developed by a division of Meta Platforms—the company formerly known as Facebook—and was unveiled at the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Egypt last year.
Rafael de Ameller, the leader of NOAA’s Environmental Visualization Lab, said in a demonstration last week during Esri’s FederalGIS conference in D.C. that using VR is a “much more interactive way” of learning about urban heat islands and can help make the heat data collected on the ground “more understandable and relevant.”
The map also includes a VR tour of several neighborhoods in Washington and provides context on the environmental factors that impact temperature in those areas. The tour features discussions of the heat values in the hottest, the coolest, the richest and the poorest neighborhoods, as well as for a community center that partnered with NOAA to act as a cooling station for residents.
While a city’s recorded temperature is taken at one location—usually an airport or other major landmark—the actual temperature can be up to 20 degrees Fahrenheit warmer if there are fewer structures or trees to absorb heat.
NOAA already runs community-led heat mapping programs across the United States, and it launched the Heat.gov website last year that showed what a spokesperson in an email described as the “undeniable interconnections between extreme heat, health outcomes and equity.”
The impact of heat on residents’ health deserves more attention, de Ameller said.
When people die of heat in the hospital, those deaths are often attributed to “another condition like a heart attack, or a stroke,” de Ameller said. “But in reality, if you look at the deaths and the excess deaths every time there's a heat wave, there's a lot more people at the hospital but rarely, if ever, [do] they categorize it as heat being the cause,” he said. “It's like a silent killer.”
NOAA also has data for heat in city parks—for Washington, D.C., that includes the National Mall and other federal and municipal parkland—but de Ameller said the agency removed that from its map to focus on where people live.
Other cities can use the data collected by NOAA’s sensors for their own VR maps, overlaying it on Census and planning data to show heat around buildings and other structures. That data is now “democratized” so anyone can use it, Ameller said.