Heat Intensity and The Effect of Urban Heat Islands

There has been a steady increase in articles on heat intensity in the news, the word “temperature” has been searched a steadily increasing amount in the time since google started recording its search terms in 2004. It has also been popping up on the news a lot more in the past few years, with organizations like Pakistani press suggesting a strong correlation between heat intensity and rainfall, and negative effects like mercury poisoning.

According to the World Health Organization, “The inhalation of mercury vapour can produce harmful effects on the nervous, digestive and immune systems, lungs and kidneys, and may be fatal. The inorganic salts of mercury are corrosive to the skin, eyes and gastrointestinal tract, and may induce kidney toxicity if ingested.” As heat intensity is becoming more of an issue, it brings up a strong push for solutions.

What is Heat Intensity?

Heat intensity is simply a way of saying extreme heat, and heat is not just the temperature of the radiant heat provided to the earth by the sun. Rather, it is affected by several different factors. First it is the intensity of the sun on the Earth, this changes due to holes in the atmosphere that increase the harshness, as well as external factors that have to do with the Sun, not us.

Next global heat intensity is affected by various man-made things, cities, cars, carbon emissions etc. all affect the overall heat intensity of the planet.  As everything works in conjunction with everything else, it is unlikely that just the carbon emissions or an increased number of urban heat islands are the sole cause of this increase in heat intensity, but rather that many of these issues together have resulted in overall increase in global heat intensity.

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What Are Microclimates and Why Are They Important?

Microclimates are small pockets of sub-climate environments that are a direct result of their surroundings. One example of a microclimate is the less elastic temperature zone close to oceans. Close to the sea, the temperature tends to not fluctuate as much because the ocean serves as a buffer, absorbing some of the heat in the summer, while preventing an unusual level of chill in the winter when compared to somewhere more inland.

This phenomenon of microclimates can be seen even in a neighborhood with an unusual amount of grass and large trees, which keeps their space a little bit cooler than a neighboring street with less green-space.

What Are Urban Heat Islands?

Urban heat island (UHI) is a term used to describe the phenomenon in which urban areas are becoming far hotter than countryside equivalents. Heat intensity can also be increased by man-made structures as small as a simple concrete building or a road. These tend to absorb heat during the daytime, and release it at night. This prevents ambient temperatures from dropping back down, which in turn, means that when heated again after sunrise, the temperature can increase significantly.

The Negative Impacts of Heat Intensity and Urban Heat Islands

Death, Damage, and Resource Draining

The increased number of deaths due to heatstroke, the damage to property due to sun exposure, the increase in heavy metals absorbed, the mercury poisoning, the damage to crops and the increased need and use of water.

Global Warming

There are concerns raised about possible contribution from urban heat islands to global warming. Research on China indicates that urban heat island effect contributes to climate warming by about 30%.

The Energy Grid

Increased heat intensity also affects the grid, as explored in a 2006 study by Katharine Hayhoe. She predicted that this would be a problem growing forward in the heat intense summer months. Twelve years later, it appears that her prediction that the spike in energy demand could not be met by the grid was indeed correct. In July of 2018, San Diego lost power due to the grid failing to provide the amount of energy demanded. This, for understandable reasons, is a large cause for alarm. It is but one single instance in what is undoubtedly many cases of imbalance in the grid due to energy demand and supply.

Student Health, Work, and Academic Achievement

An interesting 2018 article, Landscape features and potential heat hazard threat: a spatial–temporal analysis of two urban universities by Adi Wibowo and Khairulmaini Osman Salleh, explored the effects of high heat intensity on two universities. The results were evident; after the temperature exceeded 86˚F (30˚C), students became hot and uncomfortable, negatively impacting health, work and academic achievement. Universities are often used for such studies as they are commonly accepted as microcosms for the greater city.

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Heat Intensity in Phoenix, Arizona

Phoenix is over the 30˚C mark for an average of 5 months out of the year, and this time period is not decreasing. Places like the Great Victoria desert, Australia, the Sahara desert, Africa, the Syrian desert, all face similar problems as the ones faced in the Sonora region in which Phoenix is located. That said, Arizona is uniquely positioned to be a leader in innovation for this very reason. Problems solved in Arizona with the resources currently present in the state have the potential to create solutions all across the world.

Solutions for Minimizing Heat Intensity and Urban Heat Islands

One solution for mitigating heat intensity is to better manage the flow of energy, which also protects the grid. Methods like turning the Hoover Dam into a battery, would in theory provide energy when the grid requires it, and would store energy when there is an excess of it.

Another solution to this problem is to create more energy efficient air conditioning. Phoenix based company, alltemp©, has the most energy efficient coolant on the market. alltemp© provides between 20-35% energy efficiency improvement. By lowering the amount of electricity required to cool an area, it allows for more air conditioners to run at the same time, potentially mitigating such a catastrophic occurrence.

Regardless of the solutions being attempted, things have to be changed with all expediency. After seeing Hayhoes’ heat intensity prediction become a serious reality, it seems that this problem is not going away, as many would have hoped.

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Written by Naya Energy contributor, Nikhil Patel