Mapping Heatwaves from Space: How Extreme Temperatures Are Modeled

Caitlin Dempsey

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Heatwaves are defined as prolonged periods of excessively high temperatures. Linked to climate change, heatwaves have become more frequent and severe in recent years.

To better understand and map these extreme heat events, scientists use advanced tools like the Goddard Earth Observing System (GEOS) model

Climate change significantly influences the frequency, intensity, and duration of heatwaves. A study by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center analyzed temperature data over the past 40 years, revealing a clear upward trend in the occurrence of heatwaves across North America. The study showed that not only have heatwaves become more common, but their intensity has also increased, posing severe risks to public health, infrastructure, and ecosystems.

NASA researchers, through this study, concluded that the frequency of heatwaves doubled between 1980 and 2023 to an average of four times a month.


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Using remote sensing to map heatwaves

Developed by NASA’s Global Modeling and Assimilation Office (GMAO), GEOS integrates observational data from satellites, ground stations, and other sources with advanced physical and chemical models of the atmosphere. Using this information the GEOS model runs simulations to project future atmospheric conditions.

These simulations consider various factors, such as the current state of the atmosphere, expected changes in weather patterns, and potential influences of climate change. The model’s high spatial and temporal resolution allows it to provide detailed forecasts at local and regional scales.

Once such prediction the GEOS model is able to produce is temperatures at 6.5 feet (2 meters) above the ground. Predicting temperatures at 6.5 feet (2 meters) above the ground with the GEOS model is beneficial because it provides data at a height where people experience the sensation of heat.

U.S. Southwest experiences record-breaking extreme heat in June of 2024

Between June 6 -7, 2024 parts of California, Nevada, and Arizona experienced record-breaking temperatures. Temperatures in Las Vegas, Nevada, reached 111°F on June 6, breaking that city’s heat record by one degree. Phoenix, Arizona, saw temperatures rise to 112°F, while Death Valley, California, hit 122°F. Other communities in the three states also saw record-breaking temperatures over those two days.

A map of the southwest region of the US showing in deep red extreme heat across the area.
Map showing temperatures at 6.5 feet (2 meters) above the surface for the Southwest region of the United States between June 6-7, 2024. Map: NASA.

Using data produced by the GEOS model, NASA researchers were able to create a map of the region highlighting these areas of extreme heat. The map shows that large areas of the region were experiencing extreme heat with temperatures well over 90°F for much of the U.S. Southwest. Only the coastal areas and select interior regions were not hit by the higher than average temperatures over these two days.

Recent heatwaves emphasize the impact of climate change. The GEOS model is a crucial tool for understanding and predicting extreme heat, offering valuable insights for adaptation and mitigation. 

References

Nielsen, J. E., Pawson, S., Molod, A., Auer, B., da Silva, A. M., Douglass, A. R., … & Wargan, K. (2017). Chemical mechanisms and their applications in the Goddard Earth Observing System (GEOS) earth system model. Journal of Advances in Modeling Earth Systems9(8), 3019-3044. DOI: 10.1002/2017MS001011

Pan, X., Wei, J., & Thomas, N. (2024, February 29). Rising heat waves in North America in the past 40 years. NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.