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Atmospheric Sciences

Heat waves in cities getting worse under climate change

Heat waves in cities getting worse under climate change

The effects of climate change are being felt all over the world but towns and cities are feeling most hot-under-the collar, a new study finds.

Cities are usually warmer than their surroundings due to the urban heat island effect where artificial surfaces absorb more heat than their natural counterparts. Coupled with the loss of the shady effects of trees, urban areas regularly record the hottest temperatures around.

However a study by Dr Hendrik Wouters and colleagues from KU Leuven in Belgium has found that cities are getting even hotter from the effects of climate change with an increase in heat-waves.

Heat-waves are periods of time where temperatures exceed the ‘normal’ high levels. These events are already problematic in urban areas causing power surges, excessive hospitalisations and even deaths.

Wouters and colleagues have investigated how much worse this problem is likely to get as extreme weather events become more common.

Speaking at a press conference at the EGU 2017 General Assembly on 25th April, Wouters said ‘we look at how much temperature levels are exceeding during heat waves‘. Using the expected average temperatures, the climatologists can calculate a threshold of ‘normal’ temperatures and then quantify how often these values are exceeded.

This information was gathered for the whole of Belgium over the 34 years prior to 2015. In rural areas this ‘alarm’ threshold was exceeded at least twice. In urban areas the heat-stress was considerably higher- up to 16 exceedances. Overall, heat-stress was twice as large in cities for the mid 21st century.

Cities (red) show much higher annual degree exceedances than rural areas (green). These exceedances are set increase into the future. (Wouters et al., EGU 2017).

In order to anticipate how much worse this problem might get, the group have modelled heat-stress events for the next 58 years. Wouters was keen to highlight that the severity and frequency of the events is dependent on many factors: ‘There is not only one scenario for the future, it depends on how many greenhouse gases we emit and how much land change will evolve in the future.’

In an extreme scenario, where greenhouse gas emissions and urban growth increase, as many as 25 days in a year could exceed alarm levels by up to 10 degrees celsius. However, if we start to reduce our emissions, the heat-stress problem is likely to stay at current levels.

By Keri McNamara, EGU 2017 General Assembly Press Assistant

April GeoRoundUp: the best of the Earth sciences from the 2017 General Assembly

April GeoRoundUp: the best of the Earth sciences from the 2017 General Assembly

This month’s GeoRoundUp is a slight deviation from the norm. Instead of drawing inspiration from popular stories on our social media channels and unique or quirky research featured in the news, we’ve rounded up some of the stories which came out of researcher presented at our General Assembly (which took place last week in Vienna). The traditional format for the column will return in May!

Major story

Artists often draw inspiration from the world around them when composing the scene for a major work of art. Retrospectively trying to understanding the meaning behind the imagery can be tricky.

This is poignantly true for Edvard Munch’s iconic ‘The Scream’. The psychedelic clouds depicted in the 18th Century painting have been attributed to Munch’s inner turmoil and a trouble mental state. Others argue that ash particles strewn in the atmosphere following the 1883 Krakatoa volcanic eruption are the reason for the swirly nature of the clouds represented in the painting.

At last week’s General Assembly, a team of Norwegian researchers presented findings which provide a new explanation for the origin of Munch’s colourful sky (original news item from AFP [Agence France-Presse): mother-of-pearl clouds. These clouds “appear irregularly in the winter stratosphere at high northern latitudes, about 20-30 km above the surface of the Earth,” explains Svein Fikke, lead author of the study, in the conference abstract.

“So far observed mostly in the Scandinavian countries, these clouds are formed of microscopic and uniform particles of ice, orientated into thin clouds. When the sun is below the horizon (before sunrise or after sunset), these clouds are illuminated in a surprisingly vibrant way blazing across the sky in swathes of red, green, blue and silver. They have a distinctive wavy structure as the clouds are formed in the lee-waves behind mountains”, writes Hazel Gibson (EGU General Assembly Press Assistant) in a post published on GeoLog following a press conference at the meeting in Vienna (which you can watch here).

With coverage in just over 200 news items, this story was certainly one of the most popular of the meeting. Read more about the study in the full research paper, out now.

What you might have missed

Also (typically) formed in the downside of mountains and in the conference spotlight were föhn winds. The warm and dry winds have been found to be a contributing factor that weakens ice shelves before a collapse.

Ice shelf collapse has been in the news recently on account of fears of a large crack in the Larsen C Ice Shelf generating a huge iceberg.  Though the exact causes for crack generation on ice shelves remain unclear, new research presented by British Antarctic Survey scientists at the conference in Vienna highlighted that föhn winds accelerate melting at the ice shelf surface.  They also supply water which, as it drains into the cracks, deepens and widens them.

Meanwhile, deep under ocean waters, great gouge marks left behind on the seafloor as ancient icebergs dragged along seabed sediments have been collected into an Atlas of Submarine Glacial Landforms, published by the Geological Society of London. The collection of maps sheds light on the past behaviour of ice and can give clues as to how scientists might expect ice sheets to respond to a changing climate.

Drumlins (elongate hills aligned with the ice flow direction) from the Gulf of Bothnia in the Baltic Sea. Credit: Atlas of Submarine Glacial Landforms/BAS

Closer to the Earth’s surface, groundwater also attracted its fair share of attention throughout the meeting. It’s hardly surprising considering groundwater is one of the greatest resources on the planet, globally supplying approximately 40% of the water used for irrigation of crops and providing drinking water for billions around the world. ‘Fossil’ groundwater, which accumulated 12,000 years ago was once thought to be buried too deep below the Earth’s surface to be under threat from modern contaminants, but a new study presented during the General Assembly has discovered otherwise.

Up to 85% of the water stored in the upper 1 km of the Earth’s outermost rocky layer contains fossil groundwater. After sampling some 10,000 wells, researchers found that up to half contained tritium, a signature of much younger waters. Their presence means that present-day pollutants carried in the younger waters can infiltrate fossil groundwater. The study recommends this risk is considered when managing the use of fossil waters in the future.

Links we liked

News from elsewhere

The spectacular end to the Cassini mission has featured regularly in this month’s bulletins.

During its 13 years in orbit, Cassini has shed light on Saturn’s complex ring system, discovered new moons and taken measurements of the planet’s magnetosphere. On September 15th,  the  mission will end when the probe burns up in Saturn’s atmosphere.

On 22 April, the final close flyby of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, propelled the Cassini spacecraft across the planet’s main rings and into its Grand Finale series of orbits. This marks the start of the final and most audacious phase of the mission as the spacecraft dives between the innermost rings of Saturn and the outer atmosphere of the planet to explore a region never before visited; the first of 22 ring plane crossings took place on 26 April.You can watch a new movie which shows the view as the spacecraft swooped over Saturn during the dive here.

For an overview of highlights from the mission and updates from the ring-grazing orbits that began in November 2016 watch this webstream from a press conference with European Space Agency scientists at the General Assembly last week.

To stay abreast of all the EGU’s events and activities, from highlighting papers published in our open access journals to providing news relating to EGU’s scientific divisions and meetings, including the General Assembly, subscribe to receive our monthly newsletter.

Imaggeo on Mondays: An epic ‘house’ move across the ice

Imaggeo on Mondays: An epic ‘house’ move across the ice

In 2008 the NEEM Deep Ice Core Project was initiated by 14 partner countries in Northwestern Greenland (camp position 77.45°N 51.06°W) with the aim to drill from the very top of the  Greenland ice cap to its base; obtaining  ice from as far back as the last interglacial period- the Eemian – some 130,000 years old.

At the start of the 2008 field season, the NEEM camp consisted of a single heavy-duty tent, some vehicles, and a skiway. Over the summer months, the facilities could host up to 30 researchers at a time. Extra heavy duty tents were built to accommodate everyone comfortably. However to further ease the work of the many researchers who contributed to the project over several years and to create a common space, ‘the dome’ was build. Spread over three stories, the round black building included a kitchen and eating space on the ground floor, a working and relaxing area on the first floor for and a top floor for observing weather conditions before incoming flights.

After three summers of drilling through the icecap, bedrock was reached in 2010 and the Eemian ice was secured.

The 2011 season was spent on surface programs and some drilling into bedrock. Finally, in 2012 the deep ice core drilling project NEEM was terminated and camp was dismantelled.  Most of the heavy equipment was left on the NEEM site with supplies and equipment stored inside the main dome, in two garages, and on seven heavy sleds. The large dome was put on skis with the intention of moving it to the next drilling site, though exactly where was yet to be determined and  funds also needed to be secured.

In 2015, a group of 12 people, including myself, travelled back to the NEEM site. We packed down the the garages and stored them on sledges, we removed 3 years’ worth of accumulated snow (~1.5 m) from the sledges packed in 2012 and from the 45 ton main dome, and finally made the whole lot ready for moving.  Using specialist snowploughs (known as a PistenBully, sponsored by NSF ) we relocated to our new drilling site, EastGRIP at the North East Greenland Ice Stream (NEGIS).

The trip began on Monday 18th May in the afternoon. Progress was slow. By 20.30 the traverse consisting of 8 vehicles had traveled 24 km along the ice flow divide towards the south-east, towing an incredible  143 tonnes worth of equipment, not including the weight of the vehicles themselves.

After an arduous eight day traverse, on 26th May the convoy made the last 53 km of the journey and arrived at EastGRIP in the afternoon. On arrival, the team only had 3000 litres of fuel left, which would have only supported the traverse for one more day. The total route travelled was 449 km.

The focus of the work at the new ice core camp at EastGRIP is different to that of the NEEM project. While the overall aim is to also drill to the bottom of the Greenland ice sheet, this time the goal is to understand the fast flowing ice at NEGIS.

Ice streams, such as NEGIS, are responsible for draining a significant fraction of the ice from the Greenland Ice Sheet. By drilling to the bottom of the ice sheet the project hopes to gain new and fundamental information on ice stream dynamics, thereby improving the understanding of how ice streams will contribute to future sea-level change. The drilled core will also provide a new record of past climatic conditions from the northeastern part of the Greenland Ice Sheet which will be analysed at numerous laboratories worldwide. Similar to NEEM the project has many international partners and is managed by the Centre for Ice and Climate, Denmark with air support carried out by US ski-equipped Hercules aircraft managed through the US Office of Polar Programs, National Science Foundation.

By Helle Astrid Kjær, researcher at the Niels Bohr Institute,  University of Copenhagen

 

Imaggeo is the EGU’s online open access geosciences image repository. All geoscientists (and others) can submit their photographs and videos to this repository and, since it is open access, these images can be used for free by scientists for their presentations or publications, by educators and the general public, and some images can even be used freely for commercial purposes. Photographers also retain full rights of use, as Imaggeo images are licensed and distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence. Submit your photos at http://imaggeo.egu.eu/upload/

Extraordinary iridescent clouds inspire Munch’s ‘The Scream’

Screaming clouds

Edvard Munch’s series of paintings and sketches ‘The Scream’ are some of the most famous works by a Norwegian artist, instantly recognisable and reproduced the world over. But what was the inspiration behind this striking piece of art?

The lurid colours and tremulous lines have long been thought to represent Munch’s unstable state of mind; a moment of terror caught in shocking technicolour. At the same time, scientists have recently identified the connection between the great works of artists such as William Turner and the red and orange sunsets which can be a result of the global impact of volcanic aerosols. However, research presented this week at the European Geosciences Union General Assembly in Vienna by atmospheric scientists in Oslo Norway, suggests that the painting might show us evidence of something much stranger, and rarer – nacreous clouds.

Nacreous or mother-of-pearl clouds, are an extremely rare form of cloud created 20-30km above sea level – in the polar stratosphere when the air is extremely cold (between -80 and -85 degrees centigrade) and exceptionally humid,. So far observed mostly in the Scandinavian countries, these clouds are formed of microscopic and uniform particles of ice, orientated into thin clouds. When the sun is below the horizon (before sunrise or after sunset), these clouds are illuminated in a surprisingly vibrant way blazing across the sky in swathes of red, green, blue and silver. They have a distinctive wavy structure as the clouds are formed in the lee-waves behind mountains.

In 2014, these clouds were seen again over the skies of Oslo and given their extreme colouration and unexpected appearance, a photographer, Svein Fikke, immediately thought of Munch’s work. This perceived similarity between the mother of pearl clouds and the striking clouds and sense of tension in the painting is only reinforced when reading Munch’s writings about his experiences on the day that inspired the painting.

“I went along the road with two friends – the sun set

I felt like a breath of sadness –

– The sky suddenly became bloodish red

I stopped, leant against the fence, tired to death – watched over the

Flaming clouds as blood and sword

The city – the blue-black fjord and the city

– My friends went away – I stood there shivering from dread – and

I felt this big, infinite scream through nature”

                            Edvard Munch’s Diary Notes 1890-1892 (Tøjner and Gundersen, 2013)

Scientists have, in the past, used artworks to infer environmental conditions; from paintings of the ‘frost fairs’ held on the River Thames that show the gradual environmental change in Europe, to the discovery that several artists depict the influence of volcanic aerosols on global atmosphere in their paintings.

In a study conducted in 2007 (and 2014), scientists found that the visible impact that volcanic aerosols have on the atmosphere has in fact been recorded in the works of many of the great masters – particularly William Turner (Zerefos et al, 2007)). Several of Turner’s paintings depict sunsets with a distinct red/orange hue, distinct from his usual work of other years. This was correlated with significant volcanic eruptions in the same time period and the researchers found that these reddish paintings were all created in the years of, or immediately following, a major eruption (shown in the graph below).

Graph to show the relationship between colour and volcanic aerosols (a)The mean annual value of R/G measured on 327 paintings. (b)The percentage increase from minimum R/G value shown in (a). (c)The corresponding Dust Veil Index (DVI). The numbered picks correspond to different eruptions as follows: 1. 1642 (Awu, Indonesia-1641), 2. 1661 (Katla, Iceland-1660), 3. 1680 (Tongkoko and Krakatau, Indonesia-1680), 4. 1784 (Laki, Iceland-1783), 5. 1816 (Tambora, Indonesia-1815), 6. 1831 (Babuyan, Philippines-1831), 7. 1835 (Coseguina, Nicaragua-1835). 8. 1883 (Krakatau, Indonesia-1883). From Zerefos et al (2007).

For many years ‘The Scream’ was thought to also show the influence of a volcanic eruption, most likely the catastrophic eruption of Krakatoa in 1883 (described here by Volcanologist David Pyle), but whereas volcanic skies tend to tint the whole sky a red/orange, the skies in the scream have a distinct pattern, only seen in these extremely rare nacreous clouds.

How rare are they? Well, researcher Dr Helene Muri, a researcher based at the University of Oslo, who presented the research at the press conference, said that in her lifetime living mostly in Norway as an atmospheric researcher she has only seen them once. And what about Munch’s feeling of dread and ‘breath of sadness’?

Well, having a glowing swathe of iridescent petrol coloured clouds flare into bright relief after sunset, only for them to disappear 30 minutes later would be pretty shocking for any of us, even in our modern days of fluorescent streetlamps and light polluted skies.

By Hazel Gibson, EGU Press Assistant at the EGU 2017 General Assembly

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