Human Journey

Urban Weather: How Cities May Be Changing the Climate


Air pollution.  Light pollution.  Radical changes to local ecosystems.  The profound environmental impact of cities is a popular topic among scientists these days.  Now it appears that cities may actually be changing the weather — and the effects are being felt not just in urban areas, but in places thousands of miles away from major metropolises.

As part of a recent study, researchers at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the National Center for Atmospheric Research examined global patterns in energy consumption.  They have concluded that the concentrated levels of “anthropogenic heating” that occur in urban areas — heat created by transportation, heating and cooling systems, and other human activities — may be altering the jet stream and other major atmospheric systems and changing weather patterns by causing warming in some areas and other cooling in others.  These changes appear to be most pronounced along the east and west coasts of the North American and Eurasian continents, which are “underneath the most prominent atmospheric circulation troughs and ridges,” according to study author Ming Cai.

The findings may explain why some areas have higher levels of winter warming than others and help scientists adjust models to make better predictions about future climate change.   In the meantime, it serves as yet another reminder of just how connected we are — no matter where we live.

For all the latest science news, check out our twice-weekly news rundown, Earth Current.

Alyson Foster works in the National Geographic Library where she purchases books for the Library’s collection and assists NG staff with finding research materials.

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