Trading Evil lasers for MAGIC Doppler lidars

By: Janet Barlow 

Lasers may have an evil reputation in Hollywood, but they are very good for observing urban meteorology. We recently took part in the MAGIC project field campaign in London, deploying a Doppler lidar to measure wind-speed around tall buildings.

Just like a duck in water, a tall building causes a wake behind it. The wake can be 100s of metres long downstream, causing reduced wind speeds and increased turbulence. Wakes can thus affect air quality, so it is important to represent them in pollutant dispersion models.

Recently we reported on wind tunnel experiments where we measured flow around a model tall building at the MAGIC project experimental site. One question was whether the wake affected natural ventilation of the test building at the centre of the site. Measuring flow around actual tall buildings is impossible using traditional meteorological instruments like cup anemometers: they are simply too small to measure the whole wake. Instead, we used a Doppler lidar which can measure wind-speed remotely over a wide area (Drew et al. 2011).

Figure 1: Principle of infra-red Doppler lidar operation. Image taken from

The principle behind radar observations of rainfall used for a weather forecast is that a pulse of electromagnetic radiation of a certain wavelength is beamed out into the atmosphere (Figure 1). A lidar uses infra-red light that interacts with particles of a similar size to the light wavelength. Some light is scattered back to the instrument and measured. But the backscattered waves are shifted in frequency by an amount proportional to the wind-speed blowing the particles around. This is the same “Doppler effect” that we hear when an ambulance goes by and its siren seems to change pitch: the soundwaves change wavelength in proportion to its speed. One advantage of using infra-red frequencies is that lidars are eyesafe. Not evil at all!

Figure 2: Photo showing MAGIC experimental site. The tall building (height: 81 m) and the lidar (white box) are highlighted with a red circle. The London Eye is on the far left and the Shard is on the far right.

We placed our Doppler lidar on the roof of a building at the MAGIC experimental site in London (Figure 2). At a height of 27 m we had a good view above most rooftops. We scanned the laser beam horizontally in a circle, meaning that laser light was reflected from tall buildings, allowing us to locate them.  

Figure 3: Lidar horizontal scan of local wind-speeds minus the average wind-speed across the whole scan. The wind direction was north-westerly. The building is shown as a red square and its wake is the yellow area to the south-east of it.

Figure 3 shows a horizontal scan of wind-speed measured by the lidar. The velocity measurement at each pixel has been subtracted from the average velocity across the whole scan (NB: as velocity is negative towards the lidar, a wake appears as a positive difference). The wake is approximately 150 m long, which means the test building is definitely affected by the wake – it is 85 m away from the tall building. Flow around it is weaker and more turbulent, affecting pollutant levels and the ability to ventilate rooms through open windows.

So, does a wake measured around a real building resemble wind tunnel measurements? We also found that the building wake in the wind tunnel was long enough to affect the test building – but how much was wind-speed reduced, compared to if the tall building was not there? The wind tunnel experiments suggested around 40% reduction at the location of the MAGIC test building (Hertwig et al. 2019); the lidar measurements for our case study suggest around 25%. With 6 months of data, we have many more cases to analyse to quantify wake behaviour under different weather conditions.

This amazing instrument allows us to “see” urban winds and provides invaluable data to improve forecasting and building design. But we definitely don’t need to attach our lidar to a shark’s head. That would just be evil.

Thanks to Eric Mathieu, Elsa Aristodemou, Jess Brown, Ian Read and Selena Zito for technical assistance.


Drew, D.R., Barlow, J.F. and Lane, S.E. (2013) Observations of wind speed profiles over Greater London, UK using a Doppler lidar, Journal of Wind Engineering and Industrial Aerodynamics, 121, 98-105, DOI: 10.1016/j.jweia.2013.07.019

Hertwig, D, Gough, H., Grimmond, C.S.B., Barlow, J.F., Kent, C.W., Lin, W., Robins, A.R. and Hayden, P. (2019) Wake characteristics of tall buildings in a realistic urban canopy, Boundary-Layer Meteorology, 172, 239-270, doi: 10.1007/s10546-019-00450-7

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