Washington: We all know that greenery is important to combat global warming, but researchers have found that just more green space cannot help to lower temperature everywhere. Urban heat islands are a phenomenon where the temperature in a city is noticeably higher than in the surrounding rural area.
When combined with the sort of heat wave that hit many parts of Europe at the beginning of July, urban heat can pose a real threat to the elderly, sick or other vulnerable people. Scientists at ETH Zurich have researched urban heat islands across the globe and have found that the effectiveness of heat-reduction strategies in cities varies depending on the regional climate.
"We already know that plants create a more pleasant environment in a city, but we wanted to quantify how many green spaces are actually needed to produce a significant cooling effect," said Gabriele Manoli, former postdoc with the Chair of Hydrology and Water Resources Management at ETH Zurich and lead author of the study published in the journal -- 'Nature'.
Manoli and his colleagues from ETH Zurich, Princeton University, and Duke University studied data from some 30,000 cities worldwide and their surrounding environment, taking into consideration the average summer temperature, the population size, and the annual rainfall. The urban heat island phenomenon is more pronounced the bigger the city and the more rainfall in that region.
As a general rule, more rain encourages plant growth in the surrounding area, making this cooler than the city. This effect is the strongest when annual rainfall averages around 1500-millimetre as in Tokyo but does not increase further with more rain.
Two climate extremes illustrate well the role of vegetation on the urban heat island phenomenon: very dry regions on the one hand, and tropical areas on the other. Through carefully targeted planting, a city like Phoenix in the USA could achieve cooler temperatures than the surrounding countryside, where conditions are almost desert-like.
By comparison, a city surrounded by tropical forests such as Singapore would need far more green spaces to reduce temperatures, but this would also create more humidity. In cities located in tropical zones, other cooling methods are therefore expected to be more effective, such as increased wind circulation, more use of shade and new heat-dispersing materials.
"There is no single solution. It all depends on the surrounding environment and regional climate characteristics," Manoli said. Manoli explained that the main benefit of the study is a preliminary classification of cities, in the form of a clear visualisation guiding planners on possible approaches to mitigate the urban heat island effect.
"Even so, searching for solutions to reduce temperatures in specific cities will require additional analysis and in-depth understanding of the microclimate. Such information, however, is based on data and models available to city planners and decision-makers only in a handful of cities, such as Zurich, Singapore or London," he stressed.