What is the urban heat island effect?

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How it Happens: The Physics Behind the Urban Heat Island Effect

City building roofs and asphalt are often dark-colored, which helps drive the urban heat island effect.
City building roofs and asphalt are often dark-colored, which helps drive the urban heat island effect.
David Zimmerman/UpperCut Images/Getty Images

To understand the urban heat island effect, we first need to understand a few simple rules of physics. Most importantly, we should understand that objects can absorb and reflect light. In fact, the color of an object depends on what kind of light it reflects. For example, a green object reflects green light and absorbs all the other visible colors of light. When we see a green object, we perceive it as green because it reflects the green wavelength of color back to our eyes. Darker colored objects are excellent absorbers of light. In fact, black surfaces absorb almost all light. On the other hand, lighter colored surfaces do not absorb much light at all -- rather they reflect almost all of it.

So what does the absorption of light have to do with heat? When an object absorbs light, it converts that light to thermal energy, and emits it back out as heat. So, because black objects absorb more light, they also emit more heat. That's why wearing a black shirt on a hot, sunny day will only make you hotter. The black shirt absorbs light and emits it as heat onto your skin. Wearing a white shirt, on the other hand, will help reflect the sunlight and keep you cooler.

The rate at which an object can reflect solar radiation is called its albedo [source: Budikova]. The bigger the albedo something has, the better it reflects radiation. Traditional asphalt has a low albedo, which means it reflects radiation poorly and instead absorbs it.

When we build and expand cities, we tend to erect buildings with dark surfaces and lay down asphalt pavement. The buildings and the pavement absorb a significant amount of light and radiation and emit it as heat, warming the city. Because more than half of the surfaces in cities are man-made, cities heat up more than rural areas, where structures are less concentrated [source: EPA]. This heat absorption is why the temperature difference between cities and rural areas is highest a few hours after sunset. Cities hold on to more heat for a longer period of time than rural areas do [source: EPA].

But that's not the only thing that causes the urban heat island effect. Scientists believe that vegetation plays a large part in keeping an area cool through a process called evaporative cooling. Evaporation is when liquid turns into gas. Plants take in water through their roots and depend on it to live. But after the plant is done with it, dry air absorbs that water by turning it into gaseous water vapor. The air provides the heat that drives this process, so during the process, the air loses heat and becomes cooler. We experience the same type of thing when we sweat -- when air hits your sweaty skin, it absorbs the moisture and cools the air around you [source: Asimakopoulos]. Because building a city means replacing vegetation with structures, the city loses the evaporative cooling advantages of vegetation.

Other factors also contribute to the effect. For instance, cars and air conditioners, which are ubiquitous in urban areas, convert energy to heat and release this heat into the air.

Now that we know what's causing this phenomenon, let's learn the steps to reduce it.