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Bright Lights of Big Cities Are Heating Up the Globe

Bright Lights of Big Cities Are Heating Up the Globe

A new study in Nature Climate Change has found that North American cities, with their massive consumption of energy, are causing winter warming thousands of miles and even a continent away. Indeed, so-called waste heat — the extra warmth generated by cities from the coal and oil burned to fuel buildings, cars and more —  is heating up areas far away, including prairies in Canada.

Scientists also found the same warming trend in Russia, northern Asia and eastern China. However, Europe has seen autumn temperatures fall by about 1 degree Celsius.

This phenomenon of waste heat is different from what has been known as the urban-heat island effect, in which “city buildings, roads and sidewalks hold on to the day’s warmth and make the urban area hotter than the surrounding countryside,” says Reuters.

The temperature increases of waste heat can actually “disrupt the normal atmospheric circulation pattern” of both air and ocean currents including the jet stream. The result is “a far-reaching effect on surface air temperature,” says the study, borne out in the finding that, even in remote areas, temperatures have risen by as much as 1 degree Celsius or 1 degree Fahrenheit.

The actual impact of waste heat on average global temperatures is “negligible,” says Reuters. The total amount of waste heat generated by human activities only comprises “one-third of one percent of the total amount of heat carried across high latitudes by air currents and oceans.”

But anthropogenic heating very likely helps to explain additional warming in some places that existing climate computer models have not yet been able to account for. As the study’s lead author, Guang Zhang of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, says in the Guardian, “what really surprised us was that this energy use was a tiny amount, and yet it can create such a wide impact far away from the heat source.”

The sky to the west of my New Jersey town never gets fully dark at night. It glows orange from all the lights of New York City’s skyscrapers. As the new study shows, all the energy that the U.S.’s and the world’s major cities consume is not only causing light pollution so we can’t see the stars. Even though the increase to global temperatures is barely 0.01 degrees Celsius on average, the bright lights of big cities are having a real, measurable impact on temperatures on a continental scale.

 

Related Care2 Coverage

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8:32AM PDT on Apr 7, 2013

I use solar PV panels to "keep" my lights on with Grid Buddy I am totally self contained, with battery back-up inverters, should I face a power blackout!!! Just Google search for Grid Buddy and learn more - a real neat way to avoid being without electricity. Graham Cliff.

5:57AM PDT on Apr 7, 2013

Many years ago I recall returning to the village of Maunatlala in rural Botswana after a school trip. On entering the village I could feel the temperature rise due to the hundreds of cooking fires the African population had lit in order to prepare their evening meals. Street and security lights are probably having the same effect as cooking fires. The contribution from each individual street light is minuscule, but because there are so many of them, the combined effect becomes significant. Street lighting has been cooking the atmosphere for decades, all night, every night, three hundred and sixty five days a year. Now the effects are beginning to mount up.

This again is an important argument against excessive street and security lighting, plus the vanity lighting that plagues our cities. As I have said oft times before, lighting should only be applied sparingly, on a needs must basis, where needed, when needed, in the correct amounts and using appropriate smart lighting technology. The environmental and medical effects of excessive lighting are now so well established there is no need for me to elaborate further. Suffice to say, street and security lighting is out of control and needs to be reined in with stringent anti light-pollution legislation. Furthermore, new smart road lighting technology should render conventional street lighting obsolete, thereby eliminating most of our environmental concerns.

5:57AM PDT on Apr 7, 2013

Many years ago I recall returning to the village of Maunatlala in rural Botswana after a school trip. On entering the village I could feel the temperature rise due to the hundreds of cooking fires the African population had lit in order to prepare their evening meals. Street and security lights are probably having the same effect as cooking fires. The contribution from each individual street light is minuscule, but because there are so many of them, the combined effect becomes significant. Street lighting has been cooking the atmosphere for decades, all night, every night, three hundred and sixty five days a year. Now the effects are beginning to mount up.

This again is an important argument against excessive street and security lighting, plus the vanity lighting that plagues our cities. As I have said oft times before, lighting should only be applied sparingly, on a needs must basis, where needed, when needed, in the correct amounts and using appropriate smart lighting technology. The environmental and medical effects of excessive lighting are now so well established there is no need for me to elaborate further. Suffice to say, street and security lighting is out of control and needs to be reined in with stringent anti light-pollution legislation. Furthermore, new smart road lighting technology should render conventional street lighting obsolete, thereby eliminating most of our environmental concerns.

5:57AM PDT on Apr 7, 2013

Many years ago I recall returning to the village of Maunatlala in rural Botswana after a school trip. On entering the village I could feel the temperature rise due to the hundreds of cooking fires the African population had lit in order to prepare their evening meals. Street and security lights are probably having the same effect as cooking fires. The contribution from each individual street light is minuscule, but because there are so many of them, the combined effect becomes significant. Street lighting has been cooking the atmosphere for decades, all night, every night, three hundred and sixty five days a year. Now the effects are beginning to mount up.

This again is an important argument against excessive street and security lighting, plus the vanity lighting that plagues our cities. As I have said oft times before, lighting should only be applied sparingly, on a needs must basis, where needed, when needed, in the correct amounts and using appropriate smart lighting technology. The environmental and medical effects of excessive lighting are now so well established there is no need for me to elaborate further. Suffice to say, street and security lighting is out of control and needs to be reined in with stringent anti light-pollution legislation. Furthermore, new smart road lighting technology should render conventional street lighting obsolete, thereby eliminating most of our environmental concerns.

2:18AM PDT on Apr 7, 2013

Over 90% of light pollution is caused by lights that are NOT essential nor needed. Though there has been a tiny bit of progress with streetlighting most light fitting shed light indiscriminately - usually where not needed and not wanted. Many just do not need to be on at all. In today's world ALL tend to be far too bright for purpose and cause glare - which is often couteracted by - yes - even more lights.

Using lights only when and where needed, and of good directional design to avoid light-trespass, and only as bright as required would effectively do away with this ugly orange pall over cities which can be seen many miles away in rural areas.

The horrendous amounts of upward light photographed by satellites is nothing more than a tribute to man's ignorance, arrogance and sheer inefficiency.


Also the myth that lighting prevents crime needs to be addressed, more crimes occur in daytime and highly lit areas than anywhere dark.

2:13PM PST on Feb 10, 2013

thanks for sharing

3:08AM PST on Feb 6, 2013

While safety has to be a priority, I'm sure that many lights could be switched off - some motorways seem very poorly lit whilst others could, I think, have every other set lit and still be safe.

6:20PM PST on Feb 5, 2013

I don't care what story you print regarding global warming, there is absolutely nothing, NOTHING that can compare even remotely close, to what China and India are doing.

Until these two countries become serious about global warming, we are headed down hill and faster by the decade.

I think the only hope for mankind at this time is if some very ingenious (Western) scientists develop a means for removing (by reacting not pumping it into the ground)CO2 from the atmosphere in garganguan quantities.

From what I have read so far, the only thing that is being achieved is the pumping it into the ground. This is a very feeble solution at best. I would not invest in this for a second.

7:28PM PST on Feb 4, 2013

Pollution is not cool.

4:30PM PST on Feb 3, 2013

thanks

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