Urban Heat Island

Urban Heat Island:

An urban heat island, or UHI, is a metropolitan area that's a lot warmer than the rural areas surrounding it. Heat is created by energy from all the people, cars, buses, and trains in big cities like New York, Paris, and London. Urban heat islands are created in areas like these: places that have lots of activity and lots of people.

There are many reasons for UHIs. When houses, shops, and industrial buildings are constructed close together, it can create a UHI. Building materials are usually very good at insulating, or holding in heat. This insulation makes the areas around buildings warmer.

"Waste heat" also contributes to a UHI. People and their tools, such as cars and factories, are always burning off energy, whether they’re jogging, driving, or just living their day-to-day lives. The energy people burn off usually escapes in the form of heat. And if there are a lot of people in one area, that's a lot of heat.

Urban Heat Island

Urban areas are densely populated, meaning there are a lot of people in a small space. Urban areas are also densely constructed, meaning buildings are constructed very close together. When there is no more room for an urban area to expand, engineers build upward, creating skyscrapers. All this construction means waste heat—and heat that escapes insulation has nowhere to go. It lingers in and between buildings in the UHI.

Night-time temperatures in UHIs remain high. This is because buildings, sidewalks, and parking lots of block heat coming from the ground from rising into the cold night sky. Because the heat is trapped on lower levels, the temperature is warmer.

Urban heat islands can have worse air and water quality than their rural neighbors. UHIs often have lower air quality because there are more pollutants (waste products from vehicles, industry, and people) being pumped into the air. These pollutants are blocked from scattering and becoming less toxic by the urban landscape: buildings, roads, sidewalks, and parking lots.

Urban Heat Island

Water quality also suffers. When warm water from the UHI ends up flowing into local streams, it stresses the native species that have adapted to life in a cooler aquatic environment.
Scientists are studying how urban heat islands might contribute to global warming, the most recent climate change pattern that includes the gradual warming of the Earth's temperature.
When it's really hot, many of us run straight to the fan or the air conditioning. This is especially true in urban areas that suffer from urban heat island effects. UHIs contribute to energy demands in the summer, straining energy resources. UHIs are often subject to “rolling blackouts,” or power outages. Utility companies start rolling blackouts when they do not have enough energy to meet their customers’ demands. The energy used in electric fans and air conditioning ends up contributing to an even hotter UHI.

Because of these negative effects, scientists say, city dwellers, architects, and designers all have to work to reduce people's impact on urban areas. Using green roofs, which are roofs of buildings covered in plants, helps cool things down. Plants absorb carbon dioxide, a leading pollutant. They also reduce the heat of the surrounding areas. Using lighter-colored materials on buildings helps, too. Light colors reflect more sunlight and trap less heat.

Control of UHIs and mitigation:

Industrialization and economic development are vital to the country, but the control of UHIs and their fallouts are equally vital. Towards this, several methods are being and can be, tried. One of them is to use greener rooftops, using light-colored concrete (using limestone aggregates along with asphalt (or tar) making the road surface greyish or even pinkish (as some places in the US have done); these are 50% better than black since they absorb less heat and reflect more sunlight. Likewise, we should paint rooftops green, and install solar panels there amidst a green background.

Urban Heat Island

The other is to plant as many trees and plants as possible. It is interesting to realize how beneficial trees are to us. The organization Tree people lists as many as 22 benefits from trees and plants. Relevant to the present context is: they combat climate change; clean the surrounding air by absorbing pollutant gases (NXOy, O3, NH3, SO2, and others) and trapping particulates on their leaves and bark; cool the city and the streets; conserve energy (cutting air-conditioning costs by 50%); save water and help prevent water pollution; help prevent soil erosion; protect people and children from UV light; offer economic opportunities; bring a diverse group of people together; encourage civic pride by giving neighborhoods a new identity; mask concrete walls, thus muffling sounds from streets and highways and eye-soothing canopy of green; and the more a business district has trees, more business follows. So, plant as many trees and plants as you can around and between your buildings, schools, houses, and apartment complexes. But, ‘token’ planting will not do, nurturing them year after year is vital!

Increased Energy Consumption:

Elevated summertime temperatures in cities increase energy demand for cooling. Research shows that electricity demand for cooling increases 1.5–2.0% for every 1°F (0.6°C) increase in air temperatures, starting from 68 to 77°F (20 to 25°C), suggesting that 5–10% of community-wide demand for electricity is used to compensate for the heat island effect.

Urban heat islands increase overall electricity demand, as well as peak demand, which generally occurs on hot summer weekday afternoons when offices and homes are running cooling systems, lights, and appliances. During extreme heat events, which are exacerbated by urban heat islands, the resulting demand for cooling can overload systems and require a utility to institute controlled, rolling brownouts or blackouts to avoid power outages.

Elevated Emissions of Air Pollutants and Greenhouse Gases:
As described above, urban heat islands raise demand for electrical energy in summer. Companies that supply electricity typically rely on fossil fuel power plants to meet much of this demand, which in turn leads to an increase in air pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions. The primary pollutants from power plants include:

Sulphur dioxide (SO2)
Nitrogen oxides (NOx)
Particulate matter (PM)
Carbon monoxide (CO)
Mercury (Hg).

These pollutants are harmful to human health and also contribute to complex air quality problems such as the formation of ground-level ozone (smog), fine particulate matter, and acid rain. Increased use of fossil-fuel-powered plants also increases emissions of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide (CO2), which contribute to global climate change.

In addition to their impact on energy-related emissions, elevated temperatures can directly increase the rate of ground-level ozone formation. Ground-level ozone is formed when NOx and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) react in the presence of sunlight and hot weather. If all other variables are equal, such as the level of precursor emissions in the air and wind speed and direction, more ground-level ozone will form as the environment becomes sunnier and hotter.

Compromised Human Health and Comfort:

Increased daytime temperatures, reduced night-time cooling, and higher air pollution levels associated with urban heat islands can affect human health by contributing to general discomfort, respiratory difficulties, heat cramps and exhaustion, non-fatal heat stroke, and heat-related mortality. Heat islands can also exacerbate the impact of heatwaves, which are periods of abnormally hot, and often humid, weather. Sensitive populations, such as children, older adults, and those with existing health conditions, are at particular risk from these events.

Excessive heat events, or abrupt and dramatic temperature increases, are particularly dangerous and can result in above-average rates of mortality. The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that from 1979–2003, excessive heat exposure contributed to more than 8,000 premature deaths in the United States.3 This figure exceeds the number of mortalities resulting from hurricanes, lightning, tornadoes, floods, and earthquakes combined.

Impaired Water Quality:

High pavement and rooftop surface temperatures can heat stormwater runoff. Tests have shown that pavements that are 100ºF (38°C) can elevate initial rainwater temperature from roughly 70ºF (21ºC) to over 95ºF (35ºC). This heated stormwater generally becomes runoff, which drains into storm sewers and raises water temperatures as it is released into streams, rivers, ponds, and lakes.
Water temperature affects all aspects of aquatic life, especially the metabolism and reproduction of many aquatic species. Rapid temperature changes in aquatic ecosystems resulting from warm stormwater runoff can be particularly stressful, even fatal to aquatic life.

Urban Heat Island

                                                      An illustration of an urban heat island

Why does this happen?

An urban area is a city. A rural area is out in the country. The sun’s heat and light reach the city and the country in the same way. The difference in temperature between urban and less-developed rural areas has to do with how well the surfaces in each environment absorb and hold heat.

If you travel to a rural area, you’ll probably find that most of the region is covered with plants. Grass, trees and farmland covered with crops, as far as the eye can see.
Plants take up water from the ground through their roots. Then, they store the water in their stems and leaves. The water eventually travels to small holes on the underside of leaves. There, the liquid water turns into water vapor and is released into the air. This process is called transpiration. It acts as nature’s air conditioner.


                                        An illustration of the process of transpiration

When you visit a big city, you won’t see many plants. Instead, you’ll see sidewalks, streets, parking lots and tall buildings. These structures are usually made up of materials such as cement, asphalt, brick, glass, steel and dark roofs.

What do urban building materials have in common?

First of all, materials such as asphalt, steel, and brick are often very dark colors—like black, brown and grey. A dark object absorbs all wavelengths of light energy and converts them into heat, so the object gets warm. In contrast, a white object reflects all wavelengths of light. The light is not converted into heat and the temperature of the white object does not increase noticeably. Thus, dark objects—such as building materials—absorb heat from the sun.

To cool down urban heat islands, some cities are ‘lightening’ streets. This is done by covering black asphalt streets, parking lots, and dark roofs with a more reflective grey coating. These changes can drop urban air temperatures dramatically, especially during the heat of summer.
Planting gardens on urban rooftops can also help to cool down the city, too! In fact, a study in Los Angeles, California, calculated that changes like these would be enough to save close to $100 million per year in energy costs!

Urban building materials are another reason that urban areas trap heat. Many modern building materials are impervious surfaces. This means that water can’t flow through surfaces like a brick or a patch of cement-like it would through a plant. Without a cycle of flowing and evaporating water, these surfaces have nothing to cool them down.

To help cool the heat island, builders can use materials that will allow water to flow through. These building materials—called permeable materials—promote the capture and flow of water, which cools urban regions.


These images from the NASA/USGS satellite Landsat show the cooling effects of plants on New York City’s heat. On the left, areas of the map that are dark green have dense vegetation. Notice how these regions match up with the dark purple regions—those with the coolest temperatures—on the right.
Earth-observing satellites, such as Landsat and Suomi-NPP, can keep a close eye on the Earth’s vegetation and surface temperature. Scientists can use this information to track hotspots in cities across the planet. NASA scientists, with their global satellite views, are working to understand urban heat islands and help urban planners to build more energy-efficient, cooler and safer cities.

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