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UK record heatwave and rising pollution observed by eyes in the sky: images reveal hotspots

As the UK bakes during this summer’s heatwave, sensors in space have been recording dramatic increases in both UK land temperature and in air pollution, particularly in major cities. During a period of persistent stable summer weather from 15th and 19th July, temperatures rose to record highs for the U.K. and pollution due to nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a respiratory inhibitor, appears to have risen considerably too; the Met Office reported that temperatures on July 19th reached a record maximum for July.

These facts are dramatically demonstrated by the latest images from two sensors, the Advanced Along Track Scanning Radiometer (AATSR) on ESA’s ENVISAT satellite and the Ozone Monitoring Instrument (OMI) on NASA’s Aura Satellite. The AATSR data show clearly how temperatures in the UK rose rapidly in a few days whilst the OMI results show the large increases in NO2. In particular, the results show the extremity of the effects on large conurbations, such as London, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool, suffering both extremes of temperature and pollution, whilst smaller individual cities such as Leicester show high temperatures but more moderate levels of pollution. Rural environments outside the sphere of influence of the cities display much more pleasant temperatures and moderate pollution levels. Since NO2 is mainly caused by road traffic and power-plants, the lack of rain and wind in the stable summer weather allows significant NO2 build-up in major cities.

Dr. John Remedios, Head of Earth Observation Science at the University of Leicester said: “The latest satellite data shows a perspective on the environment in which we live that can only be obtained from space. The images show the temperature increase and increased pollution for every region in the UK. It is particularly striking to see the extent of temperature and pollution increases in the large cities which have such a detrimental effect on the quality of life in those locations”.

These extremes of temperature and of pollution are likely to occur periodically throughout the summer as the prevailing heatwave conditions maintain themselves. Moreover, current climate change predictions for the UK suggest that the frequency of these extreme periods of high temperature and high pollution will increase. The consequences of long-term exposure to prolonged high temperatures and pollution levels are of particular concern to the elderly and those with breathing difficulties, living in large cities with associated health risks. Hence these data should be closely scrutinised by local and national government when considering air quality measures available each day in their respective areas. EU and National frameworks are in place, which impose maximum limits on levels of nitrogen dioxide in populated areas. Techniques and technology are progressing rapidly to allow more accurate and timelier assessment of compliance with such regulations across national and international landscapes.

The AATSR instrument is a UK instrument, funded by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, to monitor sea and land surface temperatures.

The OMI instrument is a Dutch-Finnish instrument, funded by the Dutch and Finnish government. OMI was launched in July 2004 on NASA's EOS-Aura satellite. The Principal Investigator Institute is the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute KNMI, which works closely with NASA GSFC and FMI. Dr. Pieternel Levelt, OMI's Principal Investigator, said: "OMI's global urban-scale air pollution measurements on a day-to-day basis are the best ever to date for air quality from space."

Alex Jelley | alfa
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