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Why it’s hotter in the city

It is often warmer in a city than in the surrounding rural areas, sometimes by up to a few degrees. This urban heat island effect is commonly explained as a consequence of a lower rate of evaporative cooling in urban areas. But here Xuhui Lee and colleagues use climate modelling to show that for cities across North America, the daytime urban heat island effect varies with the efficiency of heat convection between the land surface and the lower atmosphere. The convection effect varies with climate regime, causing significant urban warming in wet climates but cooling in dry climates. Aerodynamics also play a part, and if urban areas are aerodynamically smoother than surrounding rural areas, urban heat dissipation is less efficient and warming occurs. The health impact of heatwaves means that mitigation of the heat island effect may be beneficial. The authors suggest that aerodynamic spoilers — a city-wide increase in building height for instance — may be impractical. But efforts to increase urban albedo, by installing reflective roofs for instance, might be worth pursuing.

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