Your City Is Leaking Heat, Messing With Weather Patterns

Energy use in urban areas could have a long-term climate effect far from its source.

New York City
Bright lights, big city, lots of heat waste. (Hal Bergman/Getty)
A former Gourmet staffer, Lawrence enjoys writing about design, food, travel, and lots of other stuff.

You’ve probably heard about the “urban heat island effect.” It’s the notion that since a city’s buildings, roads and sidewalks hold on to the day’s warmth, urban areas are hotter than the surrounding countryside. 

The heating from energy use in metropolitan areas collectively acts like a thermal mountain. It forces the air flow and thus disrupts normal air circulation.

But as it turns out, all the heat being generated from powering buildings, cars, and other human activities is not just warming things up in a metropolitan area, but thousands of miles away as well.

A new study published in the journal Nature Climate Change found that the heat thrown off by major cities along the U.S. East Coast has caused winter warming across large areas of North America. And they also noted a similar pattern in Asia, where heat waste from major population centers has resulted in warming in parts of Russia, China, and Asia.

Guang Zhang, a scientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, led the study. He explained to TakePart that, “We used a computer model for global climate developed by the National Center for Atmospheric Research. It is one of the premier global climate models in the nation and the world. After adding energy consumption as heat into the model's atmosphere, we integrate the model for hundreds of years to estimate the climatic effect of energy consumption from human activities.”

He added that while the urban heat island effect is well known and has been studied, “We were curious whether energy use, largely from urban areas, could have a long-term climate effect. This issue has not been considered in current global climate models in climate change studies.”

While it’s known that burning fossil fuels contributes to global warming, the researchers also discovered that it appears to change air circulation patterns.

“The heating from energy use in metropolitan areas collectively acts like a thermal mountain,” said Zhang. “It forces the air flow and thus disrupts normal air circulation. This modifies the jet stream, thereby affecting air temperature remotely. We determined the change of air circulation patterns from the computer model output of wind and atmospheric pressure fields.”

Interestingly, while the study found that some remote locations in North America and Asia heat up by as much as 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit, some parts of Europe cool off a bit.

Zhang explained it this way:

The effect of energy use on temperature at continental scales is accomplished through atmospheric circulation change. Recognizing this, we note that climatological positions of the atmospheric pressure troughs are located near the east coast of continents, pressure ridges are located near the west coast of continents. Correspondingly, the atmospheric circulation is different between North America and Europe, and thus the response to heating to the atmosphere from energy use is also different.

Looks like it’s time to start recalculating our future climate projections.

Do you think this new research will have a significant effect on climate change? Tell us in the COMMENTS.

Lawrence Karol is a writer and editor who lives with his dog, Mike. He is a former Gourmet staffer and enjoys writing about design, food, travel and lots of other stuff. @WriteEditDream | Email Lawrence |

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