Computer model demonstrates that white roofs may successfully cool cities

By | February 1, 2010

painting white roofsPainting the roofs of buildings white has the potential to significantly cool cities and mitigate some impacts of global warming, a new study indicates. The new NCAR-led research suggests there may be merit to an idea advanced by U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu that white roofs can be an important tool to help society adjust to climate change.

But the study team, led by scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), cautions that there are still many hurdles between the concept and actual use of white roofs to counteract rising temperatures.

“Our research demonstrates that white roofs, at least in theory, can be an effective method for reducing urban heat,” says NCAR scientist Keith Oleson, the lead author of the study. “It remains to be seen if it’s actually feasible for cities to paint their roofs white, but the idea certainly warrants further investigation.”

The study is slated for publication later this winter in Geophysical Research Letters. It was funded by the National Science Foundation, NCAR’s sponsor.

Cities are particularly vulnerable to climate change because they are warmer than outlying rural areas. Asphalt roads, tar roofs, and other artificial surfaces absorb heat from the Sun, creating an urban heat island effect that can raise temperatures on average by 2-5 degrees Fahrenheit (about 1-3 degrees Celsius) or more compared to rural areas. White roofs would reflect some of that heat back into space and cool temperatures, much as wearing a white shirt on a sunny day can be cooler than wearing a dark shirt.

The study team used a newly developed computer model to simulate the amount of solar radiation that is absorbed or reflected by urban surfaces. The model simulations, which provide scientists with an idealized view of different types of cities around the world, indicate that, if every roof were entirely painted white, the urban heat island effect could be reduced by 33 percent. This would cool the world’s cities by an average of about 0.7 degrees F, with the cooling influence particularly pronounced during the day, especially in summer.

The authors emphasize that their research should be viewed as a hypothetical look at typical city landscapes rather than the actual rooftops of any one city. In the real world, the cooling impact might be somewhat less because dust and weathering would cause the white paint to darken over time and parts of roofs would remain unpainted because of openings such as heating and cooling vents.

In addition, white roofs would have the effect of cooling temperatures within buildings. …

via Computer model demonstrates that white roofs may successfully cool cities | UCAR.

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