By Jim Steele
Published in Pacifica Tribune May 14, 2019
Our Urban “Climate Crisis”
Based on a globally averaged statistic, some scientists and several politicians claim we are facing a climate crisis. Although it’s wise to think globally, organisms are never affected by global averages. Never! Organisms only respond to local conditions. Always! Given that weather stations around the globe only record local conditions, it is important to understand over one third of the earth’s weather stations report a cooling trend (i.e. Fig 4 below ) Cooling trends have various local and regional causes, but clearly, areas with cooling trends are not facing a “warming climate crisis”. Unfortunately, by averaging cooling and warming trends, the local factors affecting varied trends have been obscured.
It is well known as human populations grow, landscapes lose increasing amounts of natural vegetation, experience a loss of soil moisture and are increasingly covered by heat absorbing pavement and structures. All those factors raise temperatures so that a city’s downtown area can be 10°F higher than nearby rural areas. Despite urban areas representing less than 3% of the USA’s land surface, 82% of our weather stations are located in urbanized areas. This prompts critical thinkers to ask, “have warmer urbanized landscapes biased the globally averaged temperature?” (Arctic warming also biases the global average, but that dynamic must await a future article.)
Satellite data reveal that in forested areas the maximum surface temperatures are 36°F cooler than in grassy areas, and grassy areas’ maximum surface temperatures can be 36°F cooler than the unvegetated surfaces of deserts and cities. To appreciate the warming effects of altered landscapes, walk barefoot across a cool grassy lawn on a warm sunny day and then step onto a burning asphalt roadway.
In natural areas like Yosemite National Park, maximum air temperatures are cooler now than during the 1930s. In less densely populated and more heavily forested California, maximum air temperatures across the northern two thirds of the state have not exceeded temperatures of the 1930s. In contrast, recently urbanized communities in China report rapid warming of 3°F to 9°F in just 10 years, associated with the loss of vegetation.
Although altered urban landscapes undeniably raise local temperatures, some climate researchers suggest warmer urban temperatures do not bias the globally averaged warming trend. They argue warming trends in rural areas are similar to urbanized areas. So, they theorize a warmer global temperature is simply the result of a stronger greenhouse effect. However, such studies failed to analyze how changes in vegetation and wetness can similarly raise temperatures in both rural and urban areas. For example, researchers reported overgrazing had raised grassland temperatures 7°F higher compared to grassland that had not been grazed. Heat from asphalt will increase temperatures at rural weather stations just as readily as urban stations.
To truly determine the effects of climate change on natural habitats requires observing trends from tree ring data obtained from mostly pristine landscapes. Instrumental data are overwhelmingly measured in disturbed urbanized areas. Thus, the difference between instrumental and tree ring temperature trends can illustrate to what degree landscapes changes have biased natural temperature trends. And those trends are strikingly different!
The latest reconstructions of summer temperature trends from the best tree ring data suggest the warmest 30-year period happened between 1927 and 1956. After 1956, tree rings recorded a period of cooling that lowered global temperatures by over 1°F. In contrast, although tree rings and instrumental temperatures agreed up to 1950, the instrumental temperature trend, as presented in NASA graphs, suggests a temperature plateau from 1950 to 1970 and little or no cooling. So, are these contrasting trends the result of an increased urban warming effect offsetting natural cooling?
After decades of cooling, tree ring data recorded a global warming trend but with temperatures just now reaching a warmth that approaches the 1930s and 40s. In contrast, instrumental data suggests global temperatures have risen by more than 1°F above the 1940s. Some suggest tree rings have suddenly become insensitive to recent warmth? But the different warming trends are again better explained by a growing loss of vegetation and increasing areas covered by asphalt affecting temperatures measured by thermometers compared with temperatures determined from tree ring data in natural habitats.
Humans are increasingly inhabiting urban environments with 66% of humans projected to inhabit urban areas by 2030. High population densities typically reduce cooling vegetation, reduce wetlands and soil moisture, and increase landscape areas covered by heat retaining pavements. Thus, we should expect trends biased from urbanized landscapes to continue to rise. But there is a real solution to this “urban climate crisis.” It requires increasing vegetation, creating more parks and greenbelts, restoring wetlands and streams, and reducing heat absorbing pavements and roofs. Reducing CO2 concentrations will not reduce stifling urban temperatures.
Jim Steele is the retired director of San Francisco State University’s Sierra Nevada Field Campus and authored Landscapes and Cycles: An Environmentalist’s Journey to Climate Skepticism.