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6 Ways Humans Influence the Weather

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Girls eat popsicles and cool off in a Tokyo park during a 2014 heat wave. Image credit: Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images

If you’ve ever spent any length of time on Twitter or talking to friends from northern California, you’ve probably heard a thing or two about humans secretly having the ability to control the weather. While we don’t have the capability to control the weather outside of the movies, we humans and our everyday activities really are able to indirectly influence the weather in ways that go far beyond our addiction to greenhouse gases.

1. CITIES FORM HEAT ISLANDS. 

They’re not exactly wrong when they call the capital of Georgia “Hotlanta.” Most populated areas generate heat simply by existing. The dense web of asphalt roads, concrete sidewalks, brick facades, and tar roofs are able to absorb a significant amount of heat from the daytime sun, even in the dead of winter. This human-made insulation, called the urban heat island effect, keeps city centers a tad hotter on hot days and a little less cool on cold days.

The urban heat island effect is most noticeable during winter storms when air temperatures are hovering right around freezing, putting you right on the line between wet snow, an icy mix, or a cold rain. The artificial warmth from cities can influence the precipitation type in these storms, potentially lowering a city’s snow accumulations compared to its suburbs.

A 2011 study published in the Journal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology [PDF] also found that the urban heat island effect can have a pronounced impact on thunderstorms that form over cities. The researchers studied 91 summertime thunderstorms that formed over Indianapolis, Indiana, and found that their research models could not replicate those thunderstorms without the influence of the urban area beneath the storms.

2. CROPS JACK UP THE HUMIDITY. 

If cities can absorb the heat of the day and make it even hotter, you can imagine how the vast swaths of crops that blanket the countryside can also affect our daily weather. Instead of making it hotter, crops can make a humid day unbearable by sending moisture levels almost off the charts on a putrid summer’s day.

Corn crops are notorious for pushing dew points—the temperature at which the air reaches 100 percent humidity—up above 80°F in the middle of the summer, creating a dangerous heat index that soars far above 100°F. Compare that to a muggy day, which has a dew point around 70°F, or a comfortably dry day with a dew point in the low 50s.

The harvest can have the opposite effect, as seen in northern Oklahoma this summer when farmers harvested their winter wheat crops. The state’s Mesonet, a network of weather stations, found that the newly harvested areas were hotter and had a lower dew point than their cooler but muggier surroundings.

3. PAVING INCREASES THE INTENSITY OF FLOODS.

Vehicles left stranded on a flooded Interstate 45 in Houston, Texas on May 26, 2015. Image credit: Aaron M. Sprecher/AFP/Getty Images 

Our obsession with construction doesn’t stop at influencing temperatures. Paving over porous earth with relatively impervious materials like asphalt and concrete has also had a major impact on flooding during heavy rain events. Fewer places for rainwater to escape means that the sudden influx of water builds up in urban areas or runs off and inundates places that had never seen flooding before.

4. NUCLEAR POWER PLANTS CAN TRIGGER NUCLEAR-EFFECT SNOW.

Lake effect snow is a yearly phenomenon across North America’s Great Lakes, where bitterly cold air flows over the warm lake water, triggering convection that blows ashore as heavy bands of snow. The bands of snow are so intense that communities can see many feet of snow in one day, sometimes accompanied by thunder and lightning.

It’s not only bodies of water that can cause this phenomenon. Nuclear power plants release large amounts of steam during the course of their operations, and on cold mornings when there’s enough moisture in the air, locations immediately downwind of a power plant’s steam stacks can experience “nuclear-effect snow,” which forms through similar means as lake effect snow. The phenomenon isn’t limited to just nuclear power plants, but they produce enough steam that it’s noticeable over a large area. Thankfully for residents nearby, it doesn’t produce much snow—and it’s not radioactive.  

5. URBAN DENSITY CAN AMPLIFY WINDS.  

The robes of Pope Francis are blown over his head by a gust of wind in St. Peter's Square in Vatican City. Image credit: Franco Origlia/Getty Images

If you’ve ever walked down a city street on a windy day, you’ve probably noticed that it sometimes feels like you’re being buffeted by air shot out of an industrial fan instead of a regular windstorm. Dense building construction can amplify the winds and cause gusts to blow much faster than they would out in the open. This wind tunnel effect can cause serious damage, blowing out windows, knocking down trees, and sending dangerous debris hurtling toward the busy streets below.

The principle is the same as holding your thumb over the end of a garden hose to make the water spray out faster—the wind speeds up dramatically as it presses between the buildings. This is also why you should never take shelter underneath a bridge during a tornado. The tornadic winds squeezing underneath the bridge will speed up, increasing the odds that you’ll be pelted by debris or sucked out into the open.

6) JETS CREATE CIRRUS CLOUDS.

The simple act of flying can also create intricate patterns of clouds in the sky that wouldn’t have formed had we not perfected the art of air travel. The hot water vapor produced by the engine exhaust of a high-flying jet aircraft leave contrails, short for condensation trails, in their wake. Contrails can dissipate right away or linger for hours depending on upper-level humidity and winds. These man-made cirrus clouds are most common at high cruising altitudes, but places like Arctic and Antarctic get cold enough that contrails can form at or near ground level. 

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environment
Great Britain's Last Snow Patch Is About to Disappear Completely for the First Time in a Decade

Until recently, it was easy to find snow in Great Britain at any time of the year—you just had to know where to look. In previous Septembers, the island has been home to as many as 678 snow patches, residual pockets of snow and ice whose climates and topographies keep them frozen through the summer. This year, though, only two of Britain's snow patches have survived the summer. And the island is now on track to be completely snowless by the end of the season, Atlas Obscura reports.

Snow patches vary in size and durability, with some melting completely by late summer and others remaining a permanent fixture of the landscape. Garbh Choire Mor—a steep glacial depression on top of Scotland's third-highest mountain, Braeriach—contains two of the oldest snow patches in Britain, known as the Pinnacles and the Sphinx. The Pinnacles snow patch dissolved into a puddle earlier this month, and the Sphinx snow patch, the last surviving snow patch in Great Britain, is expected to do the same in the next few days.

Scotland experienced uncharacteristically hot weather this summer, with temperatures creeping into the low 90s as early as May. But more significant than the sweltering summer was the dry winter that preceded it. Below-average snowfall last year meant this year's snow patches were already smaller than usual when temperatures started heating up. If the Sphinx snow patch does vanish before winter arrives, it will mark the first time in over a decade and just the sixth time in the last 300 years that England, Scotland, and Wales are without a single patch of snow.

The Sphinx snow patch, though currently a measly version of its previous self, is still visible for now. But Iain Cameron, a veteran "snow patcher" who writes an annual report on snow for the UK's Royal Meteorological Society, says it could be gone as soon as Wednesday, September 20.

He's currently camped out on Garbh Choire Mor, waiting to document the patch's final moments. You can follow his updates on Twitter.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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Matt Tillett, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0
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Animals
‘Harvey the Hurricane Hawk’ Returns to the Wild
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Matt Tillett, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Among the devastating news that came out of Houston during the last weekend in August, there was one video that warmed the hearts of those following Hurricane Harvey. A Cooper's hawk startled Texas cab driver William Bruso after climbing into his car and hunkering down before the storm. Now, after receiving care from both Bruso and local wildlife experts, the Associated Press reports that "Harvey the Hurricane Hawk" has been released.

As the video below shows, Bruso assumed that the bird sensed the severe weather approaching and sought refuge in his cab. "He seems to be scared," he said. "He doesn’t know what’s going on. Hurricane Harvey is getting ready to barrel down through over here, and he doesn’t want to leave."

Veterinarians at the Texas Wildlife Rehabilitation Coalition Wildlife Center later learned that the hawk—which is actually female—had suffered head trauma, likely by flying into something, and this had left her unable to fly. After she refused to leave his side, Bruso took her into his home, fed her chicken hearts, and let her spend the night. Liz Compton of the rehabilitation center came to pick her up the next day.

Following a week and a half of medical care, Harvey the hawk has returned to the skies. According to TWRC, the animal likely wouldn't have survived the storm if she hadn't been given shelter. Texans hoping to catch a glimpse of the viral celebrity may be able to spot her above Oak Point Park in Plano, Texas, where she was released on September 13.

[h/t AP]

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