Pius Lee

Air Conditioners as Afterthoughts

Heatwaves[1] in many parts of the Northern Hemisphere captured the public’s attention. The inadequacy of the central air conditioning units in many of the northern cities testifies to the unexpected increase in air temperature across Northern Europe, Asia and America. Thuyen-Anh and I recently moved from Washington D.C. (38.9oN latitude) to Queens, New York (40.7oN latitude). We were looking for housing in Queens in the past months. We found it strange that many residences in Queens were not designed with air conditioning considerations. Without exception, winter heating was considered. However, air conditionings were not always available in the houses we visited. It is awkward to see many high-rise apartment buildings in New York with ugly air-conditioning radiation units protruding from their windows as afterthought fixtures.

          Asia is similar. Thuyen-Anh married me in 1994, and moved to Japan to join me. I worked in the Japan Weather Association (JWA) in Nagoya (35.2oN latitude). Our small tatami one bedroom apartment had only one small wall-mounted air-conditioner. In summer in Nagoya, the temperature reached around 33oC daily. The landlord did not permit other air-cool appliances. Thuyen-Anh had to spend time in a nearby indoor air-conditioned shopping mall during the day as I worked in JWA.

          Thuyen-Anh and I had lived many years in Sweden and Norway respectively before our marriage. In Scandinavia, air conditioning was again an afterthought. Around our 10th anniversary, we brought our four small children to Stockholm on our family vacation. We were unaware of the occasional summer heatwaves in Stockholm. We suffered sweltering nights in a hotel with no air-conditioning.

Heat Waves Impact Mitigations

          Building designs had changed. The new concepts address environmental friendliness, energy efficiency, air-temperature comfort as well as aesthetics. It is becoming more commonplace that these residential complexes are equipped with central air conditioning and use recyclable energy. Some even generate surplus solar energy occasionally. They can sell the surplus energy back to the electricity power-grid. However, more energy is not necessarily the merrier. Solar energy is the basis for all energies in our planet as it is our single incoming energy. All other forms of energy are deviations and transformed manifestations of it. Net-incoming and net-outgoing radiative energies must be in balance to keep planet Earth in an equilibrium state.

Does heatwave reflect that this delicate balance experiences hiccups? The heatwave scenarios are much wider and bleaker than just about availability of air-conditioning and energy efficiency in building design. To cope with heat waves one should look at sensible strategies to manage and mitigate damage and threat resulting from their more frequent occurrences. Categorically there are three aspects of safeguards: (1) human health, (2) habitat safety, and (3) food security.

Dehydration is the most common threat when the heat index reaches 35oC or higher. One can think about the heat index as the conceived temperature taking humidity of the air into account. For instance, a 32oC air parcel in an environment of 80% humidity will have a heat index about 45oC. Dehydration is deadly. Therefore, one should drink a lot of fluid to stay hydrated. Heat-stroke is deadly. Therefore, one should stay in the shade and stay sunscreen-protected.

Severe Weather

Heat wave characteristics are a telltale sign of weather pattern changes in some regions of the world. Severe weather and climate change are two buzzwords. Forecasters sometimes used them to describe a rather long term change in weather and climate. I personally think that no change is absolutely irreversible. Therefore my connotation of change in weather and climate merely addresses the current more frequent and more intensified heat waves in the Northern Hemisphere. It signifies differences but not a permanent trend. Nonetheless, it is wise to avoid the potentially adverse effect of these projected changes. For instance, do not buy homes near coastlines that have a low elevation above sea level. Do not buy real estate near deserts as some deserts are projected to expand due to droughts resulting from alteration of rain patterns. Urbanization concentrates heat due to the urban heat island effect. It is a temperature increase owing to the complex micrometeorology in the city caused by street canyons, and impermeable road-ways and buildings. Thermal outputs from cars and buildings also contributed to the temperature increase in cities. Therefore if you do not have to live very close to work in the city, suburban homes may be a nice middle ground solution reconciling proximity to work and habitat comfort.

Heat waves’ threat for food security is perhaps the most sobering concern. Heat waves affect agricultural and fishery industries. Heat waves are associated with large regional subsidences of air. They are anticyclonic pressure systems. They come with strong sunshine and clear sky conditions. Strong ultraviolet radiation damages agricultural produce. Near the land surface, ozone peaks in heat waves and its concentrations tend to be high when the ambient temperature is high and when the sunshine is strong. Ozone oxidizes plant tissue as it respires. Agricultural yield has been significantly decreased due to heat waves. The aforementioned drought and desertification of land further exacerbate the food scarcity challenges as there will be less agricultural land and the remaining farmland will face less favorable conditions. The severe weather predicted to happen in the near future added to the worries. For instance, earlier this year we saw catastrophic floods in July in New York, and snowfalls in March in California. They caused billions of dollars of agricultural produce loss.

Cycles and Periodicities

The severe weather is largely governed by changes in the Sea Surface Temperatures and the El Niño cycles. El Niño is a climate pattern that describes the unusual warming of surface waters in the eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean. There exists a large disparity in the value of heat capacities between air and water. A water temperature change in the ocean contributes a much stronger and lasting thermal impact in the atmosphere than that in the air. Therefore El Niño cycles dictate short term severe weather patterns.

There are a few other known impactful cycles that contribute to periodic changes of weather and climate. Again, herein I loosely define change as differences in patterns over decades to centuries. The El Niño cycles have an irregular periodicity between 2 to 7 years. It is likely to be the most impactful driver for severe weather forcing. Beyond that, sunspot flares are likely to be rather influential as well. Periods of outbreak of sunspot flares happen roughly every eleven years. They represent peaks of radiation activities of the sun. During the sunspot outbreaks, more radiative energy reaches the Earth. The planet experiences increases in net radiative input. Unfortunately, more abruptly increased radiation means more severe weather. As one extends the temporal periodicity of weather impact, there are periodicities of Earth’s core spins and ice-age alterations that have correlations with earth’s air temperature changes.

The word “cycles” implies that things repeat themselves and the Planet Earth’s climate has self restraining forces. An ancient philosopher was inspired to highlight the following thought: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9 NIV)

[1] One workable definition of heat wave is a situation with lingering high temperature with daily max heat index reaching 40oC for 2 days or longer.

Author: Pastor Dr. Pius Lee is the Director of the Development Division of NYSTM. In 2021, he retired from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) of the United States, and was selected the winner of NOAA’s Administrator’s Award for the Air Pollution Forecasting Research Group in 2020. Pastor Lee and Mrs. Ancy Thuyen-Anh, Lee have three sons and one daughter. The couple relocated from the capital, Washington, to New York to take up the post.

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