Land & Environment

USU Scientists Part of National Project on Extreme Heat, Community Resilience

By Lynnette Harris |

Wei Zhang, assistant professor of climate science in the Department of Plants, Soils and Climate, is part of a newly announced virtual Center for Collaborative Heat Monitoring, a $2.3 million initiative of the National Integrated Heat Health Information System.

Extreme heat increasingly impacts power grids, human and animal health, transportation infrastructure, crop production and water use, and kills more people on average than any other kind of extreme weather.

The National Integrated Heat Health Information System (NIHHS) recently funded two virtual centers of excellence — one of which includes researchers at Utah State University — to promote community heat resilience across the country.

The new initiatives will launch more community science research projects aimed at increasing our understanding of extreme heat in specific locations, data that will improve forecasting models and help community planners and individuals develop better strategies for building climate resilience, according to USU climate scientist Wei Zhang.

Developing more robust models of rising temperatures, particularly for urban areas, can guide how communities prepare for extreme heat and make planning decisions about buildings, parks and infrastructure that are equitable to the people living and working there.

Additionally, the work aims to enhance knowledge of best practices by learning from and openly sharing successful strategies, policies and lessons that can benefit communities everywhere. The centers will build a collaborative network where government entities and community organizations work together to reduce heat risks and develop effective ways to give people more access to strategies for managing high heat risks.

USU is part of the Center for Collaborative Heat Monitoring based at the Durham, North Carolina. Museum of Life and Science. Zhang and others will provide technical support in the $2.3 million program for collaborating science museums in Arizona, Oregon and Massachusetts.

Citizen Scientists Collecting Data

Zhang’s work will build on eight years of NIHHIS urban heat mapping projects in more than 80 U.S. and international communities. Those data are part of the Climate Adaptation Planning +Analytics (CAPA) Heat Watch program and includes work done in Salt Lake City in 2023 that Zhang and USU faculty colleague Daniella Hirschfeld, assistant professor of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning, were involved in. Hirschfeld’s research includes environmental justice and planning that helps communities adapt to the changing climate.

On July 15, 2023, more than 40 volunteers coordinated by the Natural History Museum of Utah and Rowland Hall High School science teacher Rob Wilson used equipment to measure and record temperatures in neighborhoods across Salt Lake City. These citizen scientists received training and collectively made 58,707 measurements along 10 routes through the city to create an urban heat island map. The data show a difference of 15 degrees Fahrenheit across the city. That would be a significant difference at any time, but especially when the day’s high temperature was 98.7 degrees on the west side of the city.

“Last summer’s heat mapping campaign was a great success,” Zhang said. “We learned about the spatial distribution of heat in the city and heat in the western side of Salt Lake City is a big issue. More trees and greenspace would help there.”

As is often the case, urban heat maps of Salt Lake City reflect different neighborhoods’ socioeconomic levels. Lower-income areas tend to have greater concentrations of asphalt and concrete surfaces and buildings that absorb and then radiate heat, as well as fewer trees and other plants that provide shade and do not reflect heat.

“My work as part of the Center for Collaborative Heat Monitoring will focus on urban climate modeling for selected cities,” Zhang said. “For example, examining how well the models simulate/reproduce the heat mapping projects’ results. An incoming Ph.D. student will also be supported by this project to study urban climate modeling.”

The amount of data gathered over eight years of mapping projects is sizeable. For example, during the 2023 urban heat island campaigns alone, 942 community scientists took more than 1 million measurements in 19 U.S. communities. The data and maps from the campaigns are openly accessible and available at

“CAPA Strategies and training and organizing citizen scientist make all this happen,” Zhang said. “The project team includes community-based museums, universities, and people in the private sector and it is gratifying that my expertise in urban climate modeling is viewed as an essential component of the team.”

Extreme Heat This Summer

The virtual centers are launching at the start of what is projected to be a hotter-than-normal summer in many places. Large areas of the U.S. and other countries have already experienced extreme heat this year. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center recently issued its temperature outlook for July, which shows nearly the entire lower 48 states will experience above-average temperatures. Communities in the northeast and The Great Basin (Arizona to Wyoming and adjacent areas) are expected to be hardest hit.


Lynnette Harris
Marketing and Communications
College of Agriculture and Applied Sciences


Wei Zhang
Assistant Professor
USU Dept. of Plants, Soils & Climate


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