HIARC: Anthropogenic Heat Islands in the Arctic - Windows to the Future of the Regional Climates, Ecosystems and Society

The project will investigate an ecosystem and societal adaptation to warmer micro-climates created by anthropogenic heat pollution in the urban arctic over the last 30 – 40 years.


The main hypothesis in HIARC is that the heat pollution on the background of the accelerated arctic warming is the major factor of risk and opportunity for sustainable urban/industrial development of the region. This factor needs to be adequately addressed in the bio-medical routines, cultural practices, strategic development plans and policy targets.


The HIARC objectives are to:

-        Document the extent, magnitude and environmental impact of the heat pollution in arctic urban/industrial areas

-        Investigate relationships between the essential climate variables and the characteristics of arctic micro-climates

-        Investigate the societal and bio-medical problems of urbanization and relationships in the population of newcomers

-        Compose a detailed picture of the arctic environment in 1-2K warmer climates

-        Study the existing adaptation policies and standards with respect to sustainable urban development

-        Inform industrial and administrative end-users about consequences and scale of heat pollution and on optional practical measures to reduce the urban heat island effects


The HIARC ambitions require an inter- and trans-disciplinary expertise because it essentially looks on the factors of environmental change created by the societal and economic processes, which, in turn, shaped by political and cultural constraints, and therefore, different across the arctic regions. This expertise is only available through tight cooperation of the participating groups, which bring together: (i) traditional climate science that is operating on large spatial-time scales (INSTAAR, NERSC); (ii) high-resolution studies that gives practically relevant details of changing environment (IEC, INSTAAR); (iii) societal science that describes urbanization drivers (GWU); (iv) political science that analyse governing routines, decision-making processes and, of particular importance, the targets set in the environmental regulations (GWU, NERSC); (v) bio-medical science that study the physical adaptation of newcomers (IEC); (vi) and, the last but not least, communication science that explore effective ways to transmit the research results to society in general and end-users among administration and managers (GWU, INSTAAR, NERSC).

Project Summary

Even on the background of the amplified arctic warming, this heat pollution has created permanent urban heat islands (UHIs) where urban temperatures are by one-two degrees higher than those in the surrounding areas. Distinct to mid- and low-latitudes, such pronounced UHIs in the arctic are found even in small settlements like Longyearbyen, Svalbard with 2500 inhabitants.

Although the arctic UHIs are known for decades, it has been overlooked that many of them exist long enough for vegetation, land cover patterns and local ecosystems as whole to adapt to the warmer micro-climates. This adaptation opens windows of opportunity to empirically resolve at least some critical debates about the magnitude and structure of suggested feedbacks between vegetation, hydrology, permafrost and essential climate variables (Blok et al., 2010). Combination of high-resolution in-situ, satellite, reanalysis climate data with biological productivity indices and high-resolution three-dimensional process modelling, as proposed in HIARC, will help to estimate the environmental impact of the heat pollution and urbanization. It will also help to calibrate/restructure the land cover and dynamic vegetation modules used to simulate the pan-arctic climate change on the adaptation time scales up to 2050 and beyond (Zhang et al., 2013). This targeted combination of high-resolution data sources is rather unexplored as such resources became available only recently and the previous research has been biased towards pan-arctic but low-resolution assessments.

The anthropogenic heat pollution as an important environmental factor has not yet received necessary attention in the research studies. High-profile Law & Stohl (2007) review discussed chemical but not heat pollution. This is not surprising if we account for the fact that the theoretical understanding of the amplified polar climate response mechanisms began to emerge only in recent years. These mechanisms link static stability of the lower atmosphere (Esau et al., 2012; Zilitinkevich et al., 2013) and broader integral effects in physical environment (reduced freezing in permafrost in wintertime, dryer surface soil layer in summertime, etc.) into a feedback chain sustaining micro-climate changes. This chain proliferates initially very localized urban effects over larger areas.

The anthropogenic heat pollution in the arctic is caused by its urbanization and industrialization mostly driven by migrants (Bogoyavlenskiy & Siggner, 2004; Glomsrød & Aslaksen, 2006). At present, more than 85% of the total arctic population of 4 million people are living in cities. From 50% to 92% of them (depending on country) are migrants from southern territories. The migrants are attracted by jobs. In the severe arctic climates, migrants recreate resemblance of their southern environment, building wind sheltering urban architecture, planting trees and implementing convenient construction technologies. These practices improve city comfort (and hence lower labour price tag) but in longer perspective exacerbate heat pollution and warming of micro-climates. These longer and more geographically distributed effects have been so far studied very little if at all. Rather, the attention was focussed on minimization of immediate local effects (e.g. permafrost thaw under the buildings) on infrastructure (Streletskiy et al., 2012). HIARC will bring these effects into focus looking at three levels of human-environment interactions in selected urbanized areas. At the individual level, we will study adaptation of bio-medical responses among migrants and the heat pollution from infrastructural objects. At the community level, we will study the urban dynamics, socio-cultural development and conflicts caused by changes in micro-climates. At the regional level, we will study feedbacks between environmental and climate changes over the recent decades and in the longer historical perspective.  

Project Details
Funding Agency: 
Centre for Climate Dynamics - Research Council of Norway
NERSC Principal Investigator: 
Igor Ezau
Coordinating Institute: 
Nansen Environmental and Remote Sensing Center
Project Status: