Summer Sizzlers Here to Stay

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Enjoying the summer of 2010 so far—with its record-setting heat and stultifying humidity? Hate to see it all come to an end? Not to worry: there should be plenty more like it, and that’s especially true if you live in a big city like those on the east coast that have been so hard-hit by this summer’s sizzlers.

It may be no surprise that the Earth is warming up, and no surprise that cities—with their black asphalt, swarming crowds and herds of buses and cars—get hotter than the countryside. But a new study released today by the City College of New York (CCNY) is showing just how  intense future heat waves are likely to be in New York—and in other big cities by implication.

Cities in summer suffer from what is known as the heat island effect, recording higher temperatures on average than surrounding, less-built areas do. This is due not so much to the fact that they absorb more heat during the day; rather, they do a poor job of shedding it at night.

In the past two months, CCNY has been closely monitoring how severe the heat island phenomenon is during an especially blistering summer, using a network of several hundred sensors scattered throughout the metropolitan area. The temperatures they’ve recorded have been dramatic. Daytime highs in the heart of the New York, the investigators found, were no worse than in suburban  Long Island to the east or New Jersey to the west, but at night the thermometer could be stuck  as much as 15 degrees higher.

The cooling relief of a thunderstorm may also be less common in cities because the increased production of aerosols—tiny atmospheric particles—from vehicles and other sources can alter cloud formation. This may create so-called split storms, with cities acting as a barrier against rainfall while surrounding areas get pounded.

“Because of heat and aerosols,” says Jorge Gonzales, a CCNY professor of mechanical engineering, “cities [block] storm fronts, resulting in very concentrated storms in scattered areas.”

The solution to the problem? Um, none—if by solution you mean slowing climate change and making unrelenting summer heat waves less common. Even if we acted aggressively to cap greenhouse gas emissions today, the amount that’s in the pipeline already will still cause atmospheric carbon levels to rise to 450 parts per million (PPM), from 380 PPM today—and 280 PPM in the middle of the 19th century. And as for the much-debated climate bill, which last week was finally  strangled by Capitol Hill Republicans and abandoned by cowardly Dems, who stood by and abetted the crime? There’s this take from my former TIME colleague Eric Pooley, writing in the Guardian:

Sometimes dead really is dead — and for this Congress, barring a miracle, climate action is finished. With an ugly election looming in November, it may be years before we get another chance to debate a bill that prices carbon. And the consensus approach to federal climate action — the idea that cap-and-trade was the most politically viable policy — may well be dead, too.

The CCNY study recommends some smart adaptive measures for hard-hit cities assaulted by summer heat, including more parks, vegetated roofs and buildings designed with more- reflective skins to reduce heat absorption. Such remedial action is no substitute for political courage, but for now—and for the future—it may be the best we’ve got.