Jeff Hicks ’03 is helping cities mitigate climate change effects

Jeff Hicks ’03 has found his niche at the intersection of climate and technology.

Hicks, who lives in Asheville, North Carolina, is the co-founder and CEO of FernLeaf Interactive, which helps to commercialize applied climate resilience research emerging from UNC Asheville’s National Environmental Modeling and Analysis Center (NEMAC). The NEMAC-FernLeaf Collaborative, a public-private partnership, helps cities and their citizens understand potential climate-related vulnerabilities.

Hicks and his team have been at the helm of several high-profile projects that localize and contextualize climate and extreme weather data. You can see his work in many of the graphical, data processing, and visualization tools and outputs featured on, in the National Climate Assessment, Climate Explorer, Climate at a Glance, the Severe Weather Data Inventory, and several others. The project he’s proudest of? “Definitely the U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit,” Hicks says.  A product of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, the U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit, which can be found at, helps the nation mitigate and adapt to climate-related changes and impacts.

The toolkit’s Climate Explorer offers visualization of climate stressors and impacts, such as inland flooding and rising sea levels. At the heart of the Climate Explorer is geographical information system (GIS) technology that maps enormous amounts of historical and projected climate data to show possible future changes. The use of technology, particularly GIS, to support climate resilience and planning fascinates Hicks.

“We founded FernLeaf on the belief that data can empower communities to adapt effectively to the climate challenges they face,” Hicks says. “Ultimately this means protecting property and saving lives.”

Hicks’ company has also worked with nearly a dozen municipalities to assist with climate resilience assessment and planning. The NEMAC-FernLeaf Collaborative has active projects throughout the Southeast and recently completed an assessment for the North Carolina Triangle – including Durham.

Yet when Hicks came to Durham from neighboring Person County to enroll at NCSSM in 2001, he was more interested in music than technology and the environment.

“At NCSSM, I was most interested in music. I took classes in music composition, recording technology, and was involved with the jazz band and was interested in music,” says Hicks. “I had taken environmental studies as my biology course—I really enjoyed it—but at the time I definitely was not thinking I would make a career out of it.”

Hicks was drawn to UNC-Asheville and its connection to synthesizer pioneer Bob Moog, who was once on the music department faculty (Moog Synthesizers are all hand-built in Asheville).

However, while studying ecology abroad on a horse and cattle farm in Wales, Hicks began to realize his passion for the environment. Upon return, he switched majors to environmental studies and accepted a summer internship with the U.S. Forest Service that turned out to be particularly influential.

“I remember one day being tasked with sitting on the ground with a pair of binoculars to count acorns in a tree,” says Hicks. “The realization hit me that maybe I had veered a little too far away from technology.” The following fall, he began an internship with NEMAC, where he was introduced to the intersection of technology and the environment through GIS.

Post-graduation, Hicks kept ties with NEMAC but went to work for Silicon Valley tech company Locus Technologies, a leader in environmental information management. After several years in the private sector, Hicks found himself ready to try his hand at entrepreneurship.

Today, Hicks and his team are finalizing development on a new, still-secret product that he believes will help U.S. cities become even more resilient. For now, all he’ll say is: “Cities have limited budgets to increase resilience, and for high-risk communities, prioritizing those limited resources can make all the difference.”

by Neil Mehta