Using Data to Save Lives in Extreme Heat: Multnomah County’s New Interactive Heat Vulnerability Index Tool

Launched in May 2023, Multnomah County’s new interactive Heat Vulnerability Index tool uses geospatial data, local climate information, and demographic information to identify communities most at risk during extreme heat events. By pinpointing vulnerable communities, local groups and governments can direct targeted resources and interventions where they are most needed, ensuring that those most at risk receive protection from dangerous heat.

Ongoing unprecedented global heatwaves are shattering records and pushing temperatures to dangerous levels around the world—and Oregon is no exception. For example, May 2023 brought an unusual and record-setting heat wave in the Pacific Northwest where temperatures reached over 90 degrees for days on end.  

Recognizing the urgent need to protect the health and safety of Oregon’s communities, Multnomah County developed an interactive tool that uses data to map those areas most at risk of extreme heat. This Heat Vulnerability Index tool was developed to help local responders identify the specific neighborhoods most in need of near-term solutions to increase resilience to excessive heat, like cooling shelters, while identifying neighborhoods that would most benefit from longer-term interventions like planting trees. 

The index uses three factors to determine an area’s vulnerability to extreme heat:

  • Sensitivity to heat and illness
  • Exposure to extreme heat and the elements of our built environments which regulate temperature
  • Adaptive Capacity when experiencing extreme heat and for reducing the risk of harm

Multnomah County Office of Sustainability

The Unequal Burden of Extreme Heat

Extreme heat events do not impact all communities equally. Communities located in urban “heat islands” suffer from elevated temperatures caused by heat-absorbing surfaces like asphalt, lack of shade trees, and inadequate cooling resources. As a result, vulnerable populations, including low-income individuals, elderly residents, outdoor workers, and communities of color, bear the brunt of heat-related health issues such as heat exhaustion and heatstroke, which can be deadly.

Multnomah County Office of Sustainability
Explore Multnomah County’s innovative Heat Vulnerability Index.

Addressing the Disparities

To address health impact disparities, it is crucial to prioritize equitable investments in climate resilience and clean energy. Strategic investments form the backbone of OEC’s efforts to protect human health and safety in the face of a warming climate. Fortunately, Oregon has taken a significant stride forward with the enactment of the Climate Resilience Package, which invests $90 million in funding to reduce climate pollution and protect vulnerable communities from climate impacts.

A Powerful Tool

As we continue working to strengthen Oregon’s climate resilience, addressing the unequal health risks faced by vulnerable communities is imperative. By investing in climate resilience and clean energy solutions at the local, state, and federal levels, we can fortify our communities and improve human health and safety in a warming climate. Multnomah County’s Heat Vulnerability Index tool will help decision-makers and emergency response groups prioritize equity as we continue to collaborate, innovate, and prioritize climate action to safeguard our planet and the well-being of people in Oregon—and serve as an example for other counties seeking ways to mitigate climate health impacts. Tools like this one will help as we work together to create a sustainable and climate-resilient Oregon for generations to come.

OEC’s climate and environmental health work is made possible by individual supporters across the state. Make a difference and become a member of OEC today

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