We are having some extreme cold temperatures this week, with wind chills consistently sitting between -30 and -40°C. This is warmer than it is in the surrounding rural areas thanks to the urban heat island effect (UHI).
UHI is typically discussed when we think of warm temperatures. Basically, the impact of heat leaking from buildings and all the materials like asphalt is to increase the temperature in urban areas. This is problematic during warm weather because it leads to higher, potentially more dangerous temperatures during heat waves. As a result, recommendations tend to focus on reducing the UHI effect through actions like installing green roofs and improving building insulation.
However, while deaths and severe illness due to heat is predicted to increase with climate change, there are a number of urban areas that also experience extreme cold. Yang and Bou-Zeid (2018) studied the impacts of UHIs in extreme cold. They found that there could be benefits to UHIs in two ways.
First, the UHIs could reduce risks of extreme cold for vulnerable populations. This has to be put in perspective though. -40 is still -40, even if it could have been colder.
Second, if we could figure out how to harness the heat might be an option to decrease energy use during extreme cold. This would have potential implications for climate change by reducing the use of greenhouse gas emitting heating systems.
To me, this research is important work because extreme cold is going to continue and being able to deal with it in ways that cannot only promote safety but also potentially reduce causes of climate change.