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Aerial photograph of downtown Knoxville, the Sunsphere, and the University of Tennessee campus.

Extreme heat kills more Americans than any other weather event but not everyone’s risk is the same. University of Tennessee, Knoxville, researchers from social work, geography, and public health will team up with local community members to map urban heat islands, or UHI, and collect the data necessary to protect disproportionately affected communities.

UHIs are places where buildings, pavement, and other parts of urban environments can be up to 20 degrees hotter than nearby rural areas, putting people at heightened risk of illness and death during extreme heat events.

Through this project, using heat sensors mounted on their own cars or bikes, volunteer citizen scientists will traverse their neighborhoods in the morning, afternoon, and evening on one of the hottest days of the year, recording temperature, humidity, and their precise location every second.

College of Social Work professor Jennifer First is the principal investigator and Department of Geography professor Kelsey Ellis and Department of Public Health professor Kristina Kintziger are co-principal investigators.

HeatIsland-editedFirst explained that the success of such a large city-wide heat project requires strong community partnerships.

“Last year we developed a collaborative network—the Knoxville Heat Equity Coalition—which includes researchers, city government offices, nonprofit organizations, students, and community members who are working to advance climate resilience and heat inequities in Knoxville. For the Knoxville Heat Mapping Campaign, we will work with community partners to recruit 50 to 65 volunteers via email listservs, social media posts, flyers, neighborhood events, and word of mouth (e.g., neighborhood events, schools, churches) across the city,” said First.

Knoxville is one of 14 US cities chosen to participate in the 2022 Heat Mapping Campaign supported by the National Integrated Heat Health Information System (NIHHIS), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Program Office, and CAPA Strategies LLC.

“We are extremely grateful that NOAA is helping communities like Knoxville measure their hottest places so that we can use this information to inform strategies to reduce the unequal and unhealthy impacts of heat across our city. By working with community members, this campaign will raise awareness among volunteers and residents about heat risk, inform heat adaptation and mitigation strategies, and provide research on how Knoxville’s UHI intersects with equity issues such as housing insecurity, energy burden, transportation, and health care access,” said First.

Anyone interested in learning more or signing up to be a volunteer for the mapping campaign can visit the Knoxville Heat Equity Coalition website.


Chris Schmitz (865-974-8304,

Angela Thomas (865-974-8638,