NASA

How waste heat from large cities may be affecting weather patterns in areas up to 1000 miles away.

No snow this winter? Blame a city near you.

Scientists have long wondered why some regions of the world experience warmer winters than predicted by global climate models. The answer, according to new study published in the journal Nature Climate Change, lies in regional variations caused by heat radiating from densely populated urban areas.

Here's the basic theory: the effects of waste heat from human energy consumption in the world's biggest cities can be felt as far as a thousand miles away, causing regional fevers and chills of nearly two degrees Fahrenheit. Unlike the related urban heat island effect — the ability of cities to trap and retain heat — waste heat refers to the warmth emanating from houses, cars, lights, and other heat-producing entities concentrated in cities.

Compared to greenhouse gas emissions, changes in land use, and aerosols, the global effect of waste heat is almost negligible, causing an average worldwide increase of .02 degrees. But the heat rising out of cities can affect major atmospheric systems like the jet stream, producing a ripple effect.

In the paper, "Energy consumption and the unexplained winter warming over northern Asia and North America," researchers from the National Center for Atmospheric Research, Scripps and Florida State University concluded that this phenomenon explains the discrepancy between global climate models and temperature data.

They write that radiant heat from major cities has warmed the winter months in northern Asia, eastern China, the northeast U.S. and southern Canada. It is also responsible for colder winters in Europe, and colder autumns in the U.S. Midwest, Russia and Canada. More than a third of the world's energy consumption in 2006 — 6.7 out of 16 terawatts — occurred in 86 metro areas in the Northern hemisphere.

Top image: Data courtesy Marc Imhoff of NASA GSFC and Christopher Elvidge of NOAA NGDC. Image by Craig Mayhew and Robert Simmon, NASA GSFC.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Transportation

    The Automotive Liberation of Paris

    The city has waged a remarkably successful effort to get cars off its streets and reclaim walkable space. But it didn’t happen overnight.

  2. Two different Eiffel Towers rise above manicured lawns. The one on the left is an image from Tianducheng, a city in China, and the one on the right is an image from Paris.
    Photos

    Which One Is Paris?

    Francois Prost’s new photo series looks at Tianducheng, a town built to look exactly like the City of Lights.

  3. A dockless bikeshare bike on the streets of D.C.
    Transportation

    What People Mean When They Call Dockless Bikeshare a 'Nuisance'

    In Washington, D.C., some residents are not enthusiastic about the free-range rent-a-bikes.

  4. An aisle in a grocery store
    Equity

    It's Not the Food Deserts: It's the Inequality

    A new study suggests that America’s great nutritional divide goes deeper than the problem of food access within cities.

  5. A tow truck operator hooks up a damaged bus in 2011 in New York.
    POV

    Should Transit Agencies Panic?

    Many predict that new technology will doom public transportation. They’re wrong.