Our Changing Climate – extra activity

For the last four weeks, the University of Reading and the Walker Institute have been running a Massively Open Online Course (MOOC) entitled Our Changing Climate: Past, Present and Future. This week, the course participants are looking into how cities impact and are impacted by climate change and there is still time to sign up.


For the next run of the MOOC, we are trialing a new interactive activity wherein learners have a go at growing and powering their own city and discover the urban heat and air pollution impact of their city. The instructions are given below and we’d be delighted to receive feedback from anybody who would like to try it (you don’t have to sign up for the course, but I’d highly reccommend it!)


In this task, we see how well you can meet the challenge of creating and providing power for a thriving city that also manages its environmental impact. You will use the flash game ElectroCity. This game was developed as an educational tool by New Zealand energy company Genesis Energy. In the game you will have 150 turns to meet the objectives of growing your city, maintaining a happy population, meeting energy demand and maintaining environmental quality. As you will find, it is not easy to perfectly balance these four objectives! Some tips are available here. ElectroCity can be played in the browser, or a copy can be downloaded from this page for offline use. At present, ElectroCity may not be available on all mobile devices due to requirement for Flash.

When you have completed your ElectroCity, be sure to remember your city code. You will need to look at your city again for the next stage of the task.

Feel free to play the game more than once to explore your options. Once you are satisfied with your city, head over to our ‘urban climate calculator’. In this stage of the task we will assess some of the other impacts that a city has on its environment; urban heat and reduced air quality. We will examine some of the negative impacts of your fictional city as if it were a real city in your home country and consider the impacts of increased urban heat and air quality on mortality rates. The instructions for the use of the urban climate calculator are in the given link. You will need an ElectroCity game to use the calculator to its full potential, but you may also experiment with the range of possible values that are included below each question. When you have a completed set of scores from the calculator, return to this page.


Post a link to your completed city and calculator score. How do you think you did? What could you do to improve your scores? Can you draw any parallels with the activities of your region/local city to combat the impacts of a growing urban population?


Further activity (optional):
The UK Department for Energy and Climate Change have produced an activity based on reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the UK to meet the target of 20% of 1990 levels by 2050. How would you achieve this target?

If you do participate, please comment and let us know how you got on and how you feel we might develop this activity for the future MOOC runs.

Our Changing Climate – Free online course.

Throughout 2014, members of the ACTUAL team have been developing material to contribute to a Massively Open Online Course (MOOC) on climate change impacts, developed by the Walker Institute at the University of Reading. The course, entitled “Our changing climate: past, present and future” began on the 10th of November but continues to allow sign-ups. A video trailer and more written information about the course is also available through the sign-up link.

The MOOC covers the folloing topics over the course of five weeks:

  • the basics of climate science
  • climate change impacts on water systems
  • climate change impacts on food systems
  • climate change impacts on the built environment
  • an introduction to climate policy.

The fourth week focuses on the impact that cities have on the climate and the impact that climate has on cities in the past, present and future. We also discuss some of the current thinking on how cities can build climate resilience through becoming more green, through retrofitting and changing behaviours and through using data effectively.

The MOOC is a great way to get an overview of the recent science of climate change without signing up for a full qualification or as a precursor to further study.


How to get involved.

Snoozing in the heat

This morning Janet Barlow was the Mystery Guest on Radio 2’s Chris Evans Breakfast Show. Listen to Janet from 2:10:00 (if available in your country). The show had previously asked the question of its listeners “how do you get to sleep in this heat?”. Today’s show was dedicated to everyone that has been using the show’s sleep tips to snooze in the heat. Chris wanted to hear a bit more about the physics behind the many ways for us to keep ourselves, our buildings and cities cool in a heat wave. We provide three ‘physics tips’ to help you create a comfortable indoor environment during the summer heat.

Physics tip number one is to block out the sun! Heat energy from the sun streams in through the windows of buildings (known as ‘solar gain’), so shading the windows, or simply closing blinds and curtains during the day will help a lot. Incoming heat through walls and roofs is more difficult to eliminate. In warmer climates, buildings are usually painted light colours to help reflect away the incoming solar energy. One of the ways we can cool down our cities in the UK is to adopt this principle for our rooftops. Another strategy is to rely on vegetation; putting green roofs and walls on buildings is more complicated to do, but uses up the sun’s heat through evaporation of the moisture in the plants.

Physics tip number two
is ventilate, ventilate, ventilate! We all know that installing an air conditioning unit is an easy way to exchange hot, humid air inside the building for cool, dry air – but it takes a lot of electricity, and dumps the heat outside the building, making the neighbourhood just that bit hotter. Natural ventilation is a way of harnessing physical processes to get a cooling flow of air through a building without using electricity. Hot air rises and cool air sinks: so create a pathway across the house that allows air to move. Opening the windows at the front of the house AND those at the back (and any doors in the way!) allows “cross-ventilation”. Opening windows or loft hatches at the top of the house, and windows on the lower floor, lets warm air escape out the top and “suck” cooler air in the bottom: and at night-time cool air can “sink” down through the house, purging out the warm air. This is called the “stack effect”.

Natural ventilation Image
Image credit: Wikolia Maile at trip.wd.net.

Physics tip number three is sleep downstairs! Hot air rises, so if you can, decamp to the living room during a heatwave – keeping the windows open upstairs and downstairs if you can to let a ventilating flow of cooler air in to replace escaping hot air.

A new research project called Refresh is looking into how to design buildings that we work in so that we can keep our cool and think straight through future heatwaves. Sometimes we need to adapt the buildings, and sometimes it’s how we use them that counts. We will be researching the physics of ventilating flows, the engineering of sustainable buildings, and how we can use smart phones and computers to feedback our own physical performance to the building control systems – putting humans back at the centre of building design.

More advice can be found on the Met Office website.

ACTUAL members present at EGU 2014

ACTUAL project members Christos Halios and Alex Boon presented material at the European Geophysical Union’s General Assembly in Vienna this month (27th April -2nd May).

Christos’ poster describes some of the findings from our lidar setup on the Westminster City Council building in London and at a rural location (Chilbolton) outside of the city. The measurements show the daily development of the boundary layer in both an urban and a rural environment throughout the course of the year. Lidar technology provides a very detailed picture of the boundary layer and these measurements will be very helpful in understanding the underlying physics controlling the boundary layer particularly in urban areas. Christos’ poster is available here.

Alex’s poster describes some of the measurements that were undertaken in the wind tunnel at the EnFlo laboratory at the University of Surrey. These examine the dispersion of a tracer around the area of the Westminster City Council building in London and aims to determine which land surfaces in the city the rooftop mast is measuring. A source-area model is commonly used to determine an instrument’s ‘field of view’ but it is difficult to evaluate how well these models perform in urban areas. This work aims to address this gap in the knowledge. Alex’s poster is available here.

UK Storm data captured on the BT tower

In recent days the UK news has been awash with details of fallen trees and more meteorological statistics than we usually are privy to in a full month.

Available now in our graphical database is BT tower data from yesterday morning (28th October 2013) when the St Jude’s Day storm hit central London.

Windspeeds were above our set y axis during the early parts of the morning, highlighting the substantial winds above London at the BT tower site that were in excess of 20 m/s (39 knots) at 190m above street level. Turbulence breakdown showed the high level of atmospheric turbulence high above the ground during the course of the storm.

Windspeed for 28/10/2013

Turbulence for 28/10/2013

Enjoy browsing our graphical database!

(Please note: Data must not be used in any way without specific consultation with a core ACTUAL team member. We expect that permission to show and analyse data will normally be granted, but there are a number of assumptions in the collecting, processing and plotting of data that will be important to understand before the data can be used. We hope and expect to collaborate with existing and new partners in the use of our data).

ACTUAL presentations at Physmod 2013

Two of the ACTUAL PhD students Aidan Brocklehurst and Wagner Nogiera Neto presented their work at this year’s Physmod conference held at the EnFlo laboratories of the University of Surrey.

Aidan’s talk entitled “Wind Tunnel Measurement of the Source Area of a Rooftop Meteorological Mast in an Urban Area” described a possible new direction for the use of ACTUAL data; examination of source area modelling in urban areas. Source area models are used to determine the source of observations from rooftop, mast or tower mounted sensors (for pollutants, greenhouse gases or heat flux measurements). Source area models have not been well tested in urban areas and the use of a wind tunnel with building replicas provides an additional dimension to their evaluation.

Wagner introduced his copper circuit board technique (CoBoT) which uses a circuit board to provide a heat source in wind tunnel studies. The heat source can be used to experimentally determine thermal fluxes in street canyons in the wind tunnel.

Both Aidan and Wagner’s abstracts can be found in the outputs section of the site.

ACTUAL researchers present at European Meteorology Society Annual Meeting

This week ACTUAL researchers have been busy at the 13th annual meeting of the European Meteorological Society. Presenting in a range of sessions such as Urban Climate and Energy Meteorology, our researchers ensured that ACTUAL was well covered at the conference. Abstracts and presentations can be found on the outputs section of the site.

Heatwave in the UK – ‘altering the design of our cities to beat future heat’

Last week, principal investigator of ACTUAL, Prof. Janet Barlow, appeared on BBC News to discuss the current heatwave in the UK. Over the course of the last week, we’ve been experiencing the warmest temperatures since 2006. It gets particularly hot in our cities as the Urban Heat Island can keep night-time temperatures as much as 6-8 degrees warmer than rural areas due to characteristics such as high heat storage of building materials and dark ‘sun-absorbing‘ surfaces.  Keeping our buildings cool by shading out the sunshine during the day can ease the heat and avoid costly use of air conditioning.

With London and the South East under “Level 3 heat-health watch” alert, the difficulties in managing health and transport infrastructure during prolonged warm periods have been coming to the forefront.  Level 3 includes a definitive call to action for health and social officials to target vulnerable populations such as the elderly, the infirm and pregnant women. Transport in the South East of the UK has been struck by issues such as buckling rails, melting tarmac and delays due to passengers being taken ill on train services. The urban heat island effect increases the possibility of strong overheating warnings in the city as the alerts are triggered by consistent high day temperatures bridged by excessive night-time temperatures above the expected norm.

The Tyndall Centre’s ARCADIA project estimates that by the 2050s, one third of London’s summer may exceed the Met Office current heat wave temperature threshold (Daytime temperature of 32°C and night-time temperature of 18°C).  “Planning for cities resilient to climate change has started now,” says Janet, who will be interviewed on BBC Radio Five Live tonight at 17:25. “Our cities are going to be literally greener! Vegetation both provides shade and cools us by evaporation of water through its leaves. Not only green roofs but green walls will become a more common sight, helping to save energy inside buildings as well as creating a pleasant environment outside.”

Prof. Janet Barlow’s Public Lecture: “Hot in the City”

Prof. Janet Barlow, Director of the Actual Project and the Centre for Technologies for Sustainable Built Environments (TSBE) will be giving a public lecture entitled “Hot in the City”. The lecture will be held on the 14th of November at 8:00pm, Palmer Building, Whiteknights Campus. Please see the flyer below for more information.

Visualization of wind above central London

We are experimenting with visualizations of the windspeed measured by our Doppler lidar over central London. The movie below shows data measured on 30th September 2011 when there was a strong Urban Heat Island. The movie shows how wind at various heights blows pollution around over the period from midnight to 6 am – 2 minutes in reality takes 1 second in the movie. Each red dot is a measurement “gate” where data was taken (30 metres separation), so you are seeing data from 90 m up to approximately 1.5 km. Longer streams show faster windspeeds at that height. There was a sharp peak in the windspeed at roughly 350 metres – a “nocturnal jet” – which forms with calm, cloudless conditions overnight: these are some of the first observations of such jets over London. We are really interested in looking at the relationship between jets and the Urban Heat Island.

Video: Courtesy of Dr. Adrian Haffegee – University of Reading, UK

Visualization of wind over central London as measured using Doppler lidar installed at Westminster City Council building on the Marylebone Road.