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Assessing Heat Vulnerability in Olympia, WA

Olympia, Washington

Featured image for the project, Assessing Heat Vulnerability in Olympia, WA

Photo courtesy of Pamela Braff.

In June 2021, communities across the typically cool and moist Pacific Northwest faced the most intense summertime heat in recorded history; in the coming decades, such heat waves are only expected to intensify. In response, the City of Olympia seeks to identify the neighborhoods and community members most impacted by urban heat islands in order to prioritize preparedness efforts and emergency responses. By combining remote sensing data with ground based measurements and other local data, our project will engage the community in producing a robust heat vulnerability map of Olympia.


About the Community

The City of Olympia, the capital of Washington state in Thurston County, is a mid-size city of approximately 55,000 people situated on the southern end of the Puget sound. The City recently joined the Race to Resilience (, a global initiative of the United Nations that aims to build the resilience of global communities to climate risks. As a part of the Race to Resilience Pledge, the City of Olympia has committed to integrate climate change adaptation and resilience in all aspects of urban planning and undertake a community-wide climate risk and vulnerability assessment. Increasing temperatures, particularly summertime heat waves, are a particular concern, since the community is facing temperatures not previously experienced in this region with increasing frequency;  temperatures in and around Olympia soared over 100 F for consecutive days in June 2021, claiming hundreds of lives across Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. While the City already operates cooling centers during hot days, the City would like to better understand the spatial distribution and impacts of extreme heat in Olympia.


About the Project

The city government would like to assess the distribution of extreme heat impacts in Olympia, to better understand impacts of extreme heat on vulnerable populations, and to inform the development of future policies, plans, projects, and hazard mitigation strategies to prepare for and adapt to the impacts of extreme heat in Olympia.

To accomplish this, the volunteer science team would combine remotely sensed temperature data (e.g. from NASA’s ECOSTRESS mission) and demographic data regarding vulnerable populations (e.g. the US census) to map heat impact; this strategy has been successfully implemented in several mid-sized American cities.  In addition, the scientists will collaborate with local government and community groups to engage residents in collecting local temperature measurements throughout the city during the summer of 2023; this community science data would be used to inform and/or validate the remotely sensed product.

A potential deliverable of the project is a multi-layered GIS map of the City of Olympia displaying the relative daytime and nighttime temperatures within the city, as well as the neighborhoods with greatest vulnerability to heatwaves (considering indicators such as age, general health, and access to air conditioning). The scientist and community leads would analyze these maps to identify which neighborhoods should be the focus of initiatives to reduce heat impacts. A second deliverable of this project may include recommendations of programs, policies, or projects to increase community-wide adaptation and resilience to extreme heat, particularly for vulnerable areas identified through this project. Together, these resources would help inform the steps Olympia is planning to take towards resilience to a hotter climate, and limit the health impacts of future heat waves.

Timeline and Milestones

The City would like to conduct a community heat mapping campaign  in the summer months of 2023. This would require considerable community support and preparation, so developing a clear plan of action as soon as possible is a priority.

The City is also currently working on a project to conduct a tree canopy assessment and landcover classification, which will include an analysis of impervious surface cover. This project is scheduled to be completed by June 2023, and the results from this project may help inform the heat vulnerability assessment.


Project Team

Community Leads

Pamela Braff Jul 11, 2019. (Photo by Aileen Devlin | Virginia Sea Grant)

Dr. Pamela Braff is the Director of Climate Programs for the City of Olympia, WA. Pamela’s work includes developing internal staff capacity to address climate change and mainstreaming climate action across all levels of city policy, planning, and decision-making.

Before joining the City, Pamela served as a Coastal Policy Fellow for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and a Climate Extension Specialist at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. She has led several initiatives to advance extreme weather and climate change resilience including developing local climate impact summaries, integrating future climate projections within hazard mitigation plans, and providing technical support for coastal resource management and flood risk planning.

Pamela received her PhD in Marine Science from William & Mary and an MS in Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation from Virginia Tech.

[Additional Community Lead]: The City of Olympia is currently in the process of hiring a staff member for their Climate Program, who will play an integral role in this project as a second Community Lead.

Community Science Fellow

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Benjamin (Ben) Taylor is the community science fellow for this project, which means that he supports the community lead and volunteer scientist in their collaboration and communication. Ben is a graduate student at the University of California, San Diego, where he studies the distribution of warming and acidification in the global ocean; before that, he received a BA in Physics from Princeton University. He’s passionate about connecting global insight to local, relational knowledge of the wonderfully complex system of life-giving geophysical flows that we inhabit.

Scientist Wanted

The scientist will identify and analyze relevant datasets describing Olympia’s heat vulnerability and combine them into a mapped product. The scientist will then discuss this map with community leaders in order to highlight vulnerable neighborhoods or specific population groups.  In collaboration with community partners, the scientist will plan a community science project in which community members deploy heat sensors across town during summer 2023; while community leads will assist in coordinating data collection, the scientist would be responsible for analysis of the resulting data.

An optional (bonus) scientist role would be to review and recommend strategies to increase community-wide adaptation and resilience to extreme heat, particularly for vulnerable areas identified through this project. This would be done in close collaboration with the community leads at the City of Olympia Climate Program.

Ultimately, the scientist will work together with community lead and partners to tailor project details to available resources and the scientist’s skill set. While a scientist with experience relevant to both roles would be an excellent fit, we would welcome scientists whose proficiency is in either remote sensing or climate adaptation/public health. Including students on this project is encouraged; the ability to visit Olympia is a plus but not required.


  • Proficiency with remote sensing datasets and analysis
  • Proficiency with GIS
  • Experience with studying Urban Heat Islands
  • Experience with local heat observation networks and heat mapping campaigns
  • Experience with community science
  • Background in urban sustainability, climate preparedness, and/or public health
  • Ability to connect scientific results to local plans and policies
  • Persistence and reliability
  • Good communication skills, humility, patience,
  • Desire to work with community members and partners


Thriving Earth Exchange asks all scientific partners to work with the community to help define a project with concrete local impact to which they can contribute as pro-bono volunteers and collaborators. This work can also position the scientists and communities to seek additional funding, together, for the next stage.

Interested in volunteering as a scientist? Apply now!