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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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‘Beat the Heat’: NOAA, Gonzaga to map out Spokane’s ‘urban heat islands’

UPDATED: Tue., April 26, 2022

With the temperature well over 100 degrees, Spokane, Wash., firefighter Sean Condon, left and Lt. Gabe Mills, assigned to the Alternative Response Unit of of Station 1, check on the welfare of a man in Mission Park last summer. Spokane is among cities included in a heat map study.
With the temperature well over 100 degrees, Spokane, Wash., firefighter Sean Condon, left and Lt. Gabe Mills, assigned to the Alternative Response Unit of of Station 1, check on the welfare of a man in Mission Park last summer. Spokane is among cities included in a heat map study.

As seen during last summer’s historic heat wave, parts of Spokane that lack tree cover can reach significantly higher temperatures than their more shaded neighbors.

This summer, volunteers led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Gonzaga University and other community groups will travel through Spokane to map out these areas known as “urban heat islands.”

Spokane is one of 14 U.S. cities and counties chosen for NOAA’s latest heat island mapping campaign, NOAA and Gonzaga announced Tuesday.

As part of the program, volunteers equipped with heat sensors on their vehicles will travel through neighborhoods in the morning, afternoon and evening on one of the hottest days of the year. The sensors will record temperature, humidity, time and location every second, according to NOAA.

“Extreme heat kills more Americans than any other weather event and has the greatest impact on our nation’s most vulnerable communities,” Deputy Secretary of Commerce Don Graves said in a statement. “Fortunately, our talented and dedicated researchers and scientists at NOAA are working directly with communities across the country to help them take action to manage extreme heat.”

Gonzaga’s Center for Climate, Society and the Environment envisions the mapping initiative as the first phase of the center’s multiyear “Spokane Beat the Heat” program.

Launched in tandem with NOAA’s announcement, Spokane Beat the Heat’s goal is to identify and implement mitigation strategies against urban heat threats. An anonymous local donor has offered $10,000 in matching funds to support the Beat the Heat program, according to the university.

Historically high temperatures in late June led to 20 heat-related deaths in Spokane County, more than the previous five years combined, according to county officials. The vast majority of those who died were in their apartments or homes without air conditioning, while many also had underlying health conditions, according to the medical examiner.

Brian Henning, director of Gonzaga’s climate center, said Spokane Beat the Heat hopes to create protocols similar to those in place for tsunamis, tornadoes and hurricanes.

“The need is dire,” Henning said in a statement. “When temperatures hit 110 degrees, people start dying. And it is the poor and vulnerable who die first. The Gonzaga Climate Center is committed to doing its small part to help us prepare for the harsher world we are creating.”

The data collected from past heat mapping campaigns has prompted other cities to develop heat action plans, add cooling stations to bus shelters and inform new research, according to NOAA.

The Spokane City Council Sustainability Action Subcommittee, the Lands Council, 350 Spokane and KXLY-TV are among the groups that have been invited to participate in this summer’s heat mapping effort, according to Gonzaga.

Spokane is home to several neighborhoods filled with unshaded concrete and asphalt.

A survey of Spokane’s tree canopy coverage shows the city follows a trend seen in other parts of the country where wealthier neighborhoods have more trees than poorer or newer areas.

“Our nation faces a climate crisis that has exacerbated inequities for low-income communities and communities of color,” NOAA Administrator Rick Spinrad said in a statement.

The NOAA Climate Program Office, the National Integrated Heat Health Information System and CAPA Strategies, LLC, are the organizations working with community scientists on this year’s campaign. NOAA has funded CAPA over the past five years to provide science support for 35 heat island campaigns, according to Tuesday’s release.

Other cities and counties participating this year include Jacksonville, Florida; Nashville, Tennessee; Milwaukee; Philadelphia; Brooklyn, New York; San Francisco; and Clark County, Nevada, which includes Las Vegas. The program is also going international for the first time this year, with campaigns in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and Freetown, Sierra Leone.

Portland and Seattle are the only other Northwest cities to participate in NOAA’s mapping program to date, according to Gonzaga.

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