Researchers from MIT and the UAE’s Masdar Institute are using new sensor technology to produce enhanced microclimate simulations for assessing strategies designed to mitigate urban heat island effects.

Urban heat islands are destined to become an increasingly pressing issue for cities around the world as global climate change intensifies – particularly in countries with torrid climates such as Australia and the UAE.

The high concentration of dark surfaces and heat absorbing materials in modern cities can raise their ambient temperatures by at least two to three degrees Celsius compared to adjacent regions. This heat increase can have a severe impact upon the efficiency and carbon footprint of cities, given the obvious correlation between high outdoor temperatures and the cooling loads of buildings.

The widespread use of HVAC systems to alleviate these heightened temperatures can also trigger a highly adverse feedback phenomenon that further exacerbates the heat island effect.

“The more cooling you have, the more heat air conditioning systems release into the urban environment, which then elevates the ambient temperature and further increases the cooling demand,” said Afshin Afshari, professor of practice of engineering systems and management at the Masdar Institute. “It’s a vicious cycle.”

For this reason, planners and developers will need to become increasingly mindful of strategies for the mitigation of urban heat islands, as well as methods for determining their efficacy in advance.

The new three-dimensional microclimate model developed by Afshari and his fellow researchers at MIT and the Masdar Institute promises to enhance the assessment of heat island mitigation strategies by providing a more detailed and accurate simulation of urban environments using sensor technology.

The researchers installed an array of weather sensors across the Abu Dhabi CBD to collect data on a range of environmental factors, including air temperature, ground temperature and building façade temperature, as well as wind speed and solar radiation.

They then used this data in tandem with data on buildings and motorized traffic to create an enhanced model of the complex interactions between the heat flows of buildings in the Abu Dhabi downtown area.

According to Afshari, the use of more accurate microclimate models could dramatically improve the sustainability and efficiency of modern cities.

“If architects, developers and planners use our software to evaluate alternative designs and make informed decisions to locate, design and operate buildings in ways that minimize urban heat releases and improve the thermal comfort of urban dwellers, we will have achieved our goal,” he said.