R&D evaluating climate vulnerability with geospatial data

Green map of Wales. climate emergency

R&D evaluating climate vulnerability with geospatial data


Adaptation to climate change is a vital part of planning for the effects of climate change.  Adaptation can be: planned, reactive, anticipatory, or spontaneous (UKCIP, 2013).  And unsurprisingly taking planned action before you are forced into reactive response is lest costly and can be better planned and targeted to reduce inequalities.

climate adaptation: “In human systems, the process of adjustment to actual or expected climate and its effects, in order to moderate harm or exploit beneficial opportunities. In natural systems, the process of adjustment to actual climate and its effects; human intervention may facilitate adjustment to expected climate and its effects.”  

IPCC, 2022, p.2898

Climate adaptation plays a role in supporting the health of communities.  The most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report (2022) identified that beyond a +1.5◦C warming, within many regions of Europe, existing and future planned adaptation measures not going to be enough to dodge the risks associated with climatic change.    Talk of +1.5◦C seems increasingly wishful thinking however given we are globally way of achieving that even if all the good words with numerous caveats are put into effect.

The Auditor General for Wales was more politic but direct when stating…

“There is clear uncertainty about whether the public sector will meet its 2030 collective ambition. … And while public bodies are demonstrating commitment to carbon reduction, they must now significantly ramp up their activities”

Audit Wales, 2022

Adaptation within Europe currently has failed to be implemented at the right scale, depth, and speed required (Alexander et al., 2022).  More adaptation will happen in future – we get to choose whether we plan it or are simply forced to react.  From a population health perspective there is the additional danger that more vulnerable groups, through no fault of their own, are often exposed to these risks earlier and at greater intensity than other groups.  With this knowledge is it ethical to delay action?

Urban Habitats’ work is to bring together evidence into practice in the attempt to create planetary and community health.  As a learning organisation, ongoing, deep, an reflective learning are vital tools of our practise.  We undertook this internally funded R&D project to test how some specific geographic tools could support thinking about response to key risks for people and planet.  We focused in on flooding and heat for two reasons:

  1. Impacts from heat and flooding are key health risks
  2. Data varies for each: there are detailed flood maps for the UK whereas heat risk has less information available.

There are existing adaptation toolkits such as Climate Just that make some use of mapping techniques and data to help indicate people and places most vulnerable to climate hazards.  Using publicly available data we sought to investigate how Geospatial Information Systems (GIS), a digital mapping and data analysis tool, can be used to evaluate and visually present climate vulnerabilities.  Such information is potentially useful in that it may support public bodies and practitioners to plan and prioritise adaptation interventions. 

what we did

Within our internal research and development project, we asked the following questions regarding the use of GIS in raising awareness of the need for adaptation to climate change.

  1. Can GIS be used to better inform where climate adaptation action is required?
  2. What existing GIS data sets are there available for Wales and what are the gap?
  3. How can climate vulnerability and health inequality data be evaluated in GIS?

GIS Data for flooding and heat was identified for Wales.  

Flooding: there are numerous datasets of assessed flood risk, such as those from Natural Resources Wales via Data Maps Wales.  For this R&D we worked with Flood Watch Zones which are areas already assessed as at risk of flooding.  A limitation of our R&D and future development which could be addressed using other datasets would be to differentiate between types of flooding such as from the sea, rivers, surface water, ground water.

Heat: we found that despite posing one of the key climatic risks, temperature (heat) data appears to be lacking for Wales, especially in terms of geospatial data available on heatwaves, which are likely to impact urban areas the most.

Open-source data from NASA and tools for climatic data such as AppEEARS were used to generate GeoTIFFs for use within GIS software (we used QGIS).  The data available however were found to be of limited use and maximum temperatures were not available for Wales.  A key risk to health from heat is heatwaves.  A heatwave has a specific definition based on a three day period, and this varies across the UK and Wales by county.  In the scope of this R&D we found a gap for what would be ideal – projected heatwave risk data by county.

mapping climate vulnerabilities: Flood Watch Zones and WIMD

Provided below are some examples of the outputs from this R&D linking the datasets of the Welsh Index of Multiple Deprivation (WIMD) Overall result for 2019 to Natural Resources Wales Flood Watch Zones Data.  These data were analysed using GIS in several different ways and combinations as shown in the output maps.

Map of Cardiff with different zones coloured by flood risk and index of deprivation.

Map 1: Two datasets overlaid, darker shades of red relate to higher ratings in the index of deprivation with lighter shades showing the areas shown as less deprived, for this case in Cardiff.  Light blue hatch shows Flood Watch Zone.  This is the least processed map.

Map of Cardiff with different zones coloured by flood risk and index of deprivation.

Map 2: Colour coding differentiates between being in a Flood Watch Zone (blue) and not (red).

Map of Cardiff with different zones coloured by flood risk and index of deprivation.

Map 3: WIMD overall data is clipped to the geographic extent of the flood risk area, a new vector layer was created showing only areas in Flood Watch Zones.

In conjunction with other methods and data, maps such as these may help public bodies to evaluate options for climate adaptation action so that the most vulnerable are protected. Obviously a wide range of considerations relate to climate vulnerability and how investment might be prioritised

experimenting with other datasets

The following maps were generated using open-source data from NASA Earth Data whilst within QGIS with SRTM extension for a digital elevation model.  Whilst this R&D focuses on Wales consideration was also given to approaches globally and therefore what global datasets are available that might be applied in other contexts.

The maps below depict the results for Wales, with additional data overlayed, highlighting Wales’s most built-up areas. The map shows the majority of built-up (urban) areas of Wales being located in low-lying regions along the coastline and within the Valleys of the Southwest and East.  This of course relates to historic reasons that people have chosen to settle in different places and the growth of towns and cities in Wales with access to ports often being an important factor.  These maps highlight a significant amount of Wales’ physical infrastructure being situated on land that is at risk of Sea Level Rise, tidal flooding, and coastal erosion.

Map of Wales, mostly green with hilly areas brown. Built up areas coloured in red.

Map 5: NASA Earth Data STRM Digital Elevation Model of Wales overlaid with built up areas of Wales data.


This R&D used evidence in practice to assess climate vulnerability and to link this to population health vulnerability.  Opensource software was used and publicly available datasets.

Data were assessed for an urban area, Cardiff, and for the whole of Wales.

Future development of this could include more advanced analysis of data such as through statistical analysis.

This R&D identified limitations in existing data, particularly for heat and heat waves, in Wales and indeed more widely.

This was also the largest R&D undertaken to date so was an opportunity to develop processes for conducting and managing R&D in a practice context.