Quality and sensitivity of high-resolution numerical simulation of urban heat islands

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High-resolution numerical simulations of the urban heat island (UHI) effect with the widely-used Weather Research and Forecasting (WRF) model are assessed. Both the sensitivity of the results to the simulation setup, and the quality of the simulated fields as representations of the real world, are investigated. Results indicate that the WRF-simulated surface temperatures are more sensitive to the planetary boundary layer (PBL) scheme choice during nighttime, and more sensitive to the surface thermal roughness length parameterization during daytime. The urban surface temperatures simulated by WRF are also highly sensitive to the urban canopy model (UCM) used. The implementation in this study of an improved UCM (the Princeton UCM or PUCM) that allows the simulation of heterogeneous urban facets and of key hydrological processes, together with the so-called CZ09 parameterization for the thermal roughness length, significantly reduce the bias (<1.5 °C) in the surface temperature fields as compared to satellite observations during daytime. The boundary layer potential temperature profiles are captured by WRF reasonable well at both urban and rural sites; the biases in these profiles relative to aircraft-mounted senor measurements are on the order of 1.5 °C. Changing UCMs and PBL schemes does not alter the performance of WRF in reproducing bulk boundary layer temperature profiles significantly. The results illustrate the wide range of urban environmental conditions that various configurations of WRF can produce, and the significant biases that should be assessed before inferences are made based on WRF outputs. The optimal set-up of WRF-PUCM developed in this paper also paves the way for a confident exploration of the city-scale impacts of UHI mitigation strategies in the companion paper (Li et al 2014).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number055001
JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2014
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Environment
  • General Environmental Science
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


  • WRF
  • thermal roughness length
  • urban canopy model
  • urban heat island


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