Published online 11 August 2008 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2008.1017

News

How pollution influences the weekend weather

The effects of weekday emissions differ from country to country.

Researchers have pinned down how pollution is changing the weather at weekends in some of the countries in Europe. Spain’s winter weekends, for example, are sunnier, but Iceland’s are wetter.

trafficWeekday traffic could make for sunnier weekends.Punchstock

It's been known for years that man-made pollution affects weather patterns, but in the first survey of weekly weather cycles to cover Western Europe, researchers have found that pollution seems to be giving the Spanish milder winter weekends. But there’s a sting in the tail — summer weekends are correspondingly colder and wetter.

Scientists think that the patterns are caused by changes in the amount of particulate air pollution that build up over the week thanks to traffic and industrial activity. Indeed, weekly cycles in weather have been reported for several areas. Parts of the United States have less rainfall on weekends1, while Germany gets more rain at the end of the week2.

The pollution also tends to give the United Kingdom and western France drier, cloudless weekends in winter, whereas Iceland and Greenland are also experiencing wetter winter weekends.

Unknown mechanism

Arturo Sanchez-Lorenzo, a climatologist at the University of Barcelona in Spain, and his colleagues studied 44 years of climate data from 13 weather stations across rural and urban areas of Spain, and extended their research by surveying sea level pressures for western Europe. The study appears in Geophysical Research Letters3.

The emission of smoke and gases has been known to affect rainfall since the 1920s4. Airborne pollution particles can seed raindrop formation — but it can also change how rain clouds develop, potentially delaying rainfall to create fiercer summer storms as has been seen in the United States.

This complicated interaction means that scientists are unsure exactly how the cycle develops. “We suggest that [these weekly cycles] are related to changes in atmospheric circulation over western Europe, maybe due to some indirect effect and interaction of aerosols with atmospheric dynamics” says Sanchez-Lorenzo

David Parker, of the UK Meteorological Office in Exeter, agrees that the anthropogenic emissions of aerosol particles, through their impacts on cloud dynamics, can affect the amount of solar radiation reaching Earth’s surface and therefore atmospheric circulation. But, he says, more detailed experiments on the effect of weekly-varying aerosols on weather and climate are needed to confirm this mechanism. 

Katrina Charles is a BA Media Fellow.

  • References

    1. Bell, T. L. et al. J. Geophys. Res. 113, D02209 (2008).
    2. Baümer, D. & Vogel, B. Geophys. Res. Lett. 34, L03819 (2007). | Article |
    3. Sanchez-Lorenzo, A. at al. Geophys. Res. Lett. doi:10.1029/2008GL034160 (2008).
    4. Ashworth, J. R. Q. J. R. Meteorol. Soc. 55, 341–350 (1929).
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