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Study finds paved surfaces in Houston worsen air quality

Paved surfaces in the Houston area keep the city warmer than more natural surfaces. Credit: UCAR. Click to enlarge.

New research by a team from the US, China and Japan focusing on the Houston, Texas area suggests that widespread urban development alters weather patterns in a way that can make it easier for pollutants to accumulate during warm summer weather instead of being blown out to sea.

The international study could have implications for the air quality of fast-growing coastal cities in the United States and other mid-latitude regions overseas—the proliferation of strip malls, subdivisions, and other paved areas may interfere with breezes needed to clear away smog and other pollution.

““The very existence of the Houston area favors stagnation.”
—Chen et al.

The research team combined extensive atmospheric measurements with computer simulations to examine the impact of pavement on breezes in Houston. They found that, because pavement soaks up heat and keeps land areas relatively warm overnight, the contrast between land and sea temperatures is reduced during the summer. This in turn causes a reduction in nighttime winds that would otherwise blow pollutants out to sea.

In addition, built structures interfere with local winds and contribute to relatively stagnant afternoon weather conditions.

The developed area of Houston has a major impact on local air pollution. If the city continues to expand, it’s going to make the winds even weaker in the summertime, and that will make air pollution much worse.

—Fei Chen of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo. and lead author

While cautioning that more work is needed to better understand the impact of urban development on wind patterns, Chen says the research can eventually help forecasters improve projections of major pollution events. Policy makers might also consider new approaches to development as cities work to clean up unhealthy air.

The article is in press in the Journal of Geophysical Research-Atmospheres, a publication of the American Geophysical Union.

Houston, with a mix of petrochemical facilities, sprawling suburbs, and traffic jams that stretch for miles, has some of the highest levels of ground-level ozone and other air pollutants in the United States. State and federal officials have long worked to regulate emissions from factories and motor vehicles in an effort to improve air quality.

The new study suggests that focusing on the city’s development patterns and adding to its already extensive park system could provide air quality benefits as well.

If you made the city greener and created lakes and ponds, then you probably would have less air pollution even if emissions stayed the same. The nighttime temperatures over the city would be lower and winds would become stronger, blowing the pollution out to the Gulf.

—Fei Chen

Chen adds that more research is needed to determine whether paved areas are having a similar effect in other cities in the mid-latitudes where sea breezes are strongest. Coastal cities from Los Angeles to Shanghai are striving to reduce air pollution levels. However, because each city’s topography and climatology is different, it remains uncertain whether expanses of pavement are significantly affecting wind patterns.

For the Houston study, Chen and his colleagues focused on the onset of a nine-day period of unusually hot weather, stagnant winds, and high pollution in the Houston-Galveston area that began on 30 August 2000. They chose that date partly because they could draw on extensive atmospheric measurements taken during that summer by researchers participating in a field project known as the Texas Air Quality Study 2000. That campaign was conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the US Department of Energy, universities, and the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission.

In addition to the real-world measurements, the study team created a series of computer simulations with NCAR’s Advanced Weather Research and Forecasting model.

Fei and his colleagues focused on wind patterns, which are driven by temperature contrasts between land and sea. If, as in one of the computer simulations, Houston were covered with cropland instead of pavement, inland air would heat up more than marine air during summer days, causing a sea breeze to blow onshore in the afternoon. Conversely, as the inland air became cooler than marine air overnight, a land breeze would blow offshore—potentially blowing away pollution.

In contrast, the actual paved surfaces of Houston absorb more heat during the day and are warmer overnight. This results in stagnation for three reasons:

  • At night, the city’s temperatures are similar to those offshore. The lack of a sharp temperature gradient has the effect of reducing winds.

  • During the day, the hot paved urban areas tend to draw in air from offshore. However, this air is offset by prevailing wind patterns that blow toward the water, resulting in relatively little net movement in the atmosphere over the city.

  • Buildings and other structures break up local winds far more than does the relatively smooth surface of croplands or a natural surface like grasslands. This tends to further reduce breezes.

The study also found that drought conditions can worsen air pollution. This is because dry soil tends to heat up more quickly than wet soil during the day. It releases more of that heat overnight, reducing the temperature contrast between land and water and thereby reducing nighttime breezes.

By comparing observations taken in 2000 with computer simulations of Houston-area winds and temperatures, the researchers were able to confirm that the Advanced Weather Research and Forecasting model was accurately capturing local meteorological conditions.

The research was funded by the US Air Force Weather Agency, the US Defense Threat Reduction Agency, and the National Science Foundation.


  • Fei Chen, Mukul Tewari, Shiguang Miao, Jian-Wen Bao, Hiroyuki Kusaka (2011) A numerical study of interactions between surface forcing and sea-breeze circulations and their effects on stagnation in the greater Houston area. Journal of Geophysical Research-Atmospheres doi: 10.1029/2010JD015533



OMG... this is surprising??


Solid, basic scientific research.

Next. "Does wind creat ocean waves"?

Roger Pham

light-color pavements may be of help. Concrete can be made with lighter color. So can house and building roofs be made with lighter colors. Research will be needed on this.

Make over-head covers over streets and parking lots that will be covered with solar panels. These overhead structures will dissipate heat above ground during the day, thus less heat will be felt by people on the ground. Furthermore, these open-ended structures will quickly lose heat through convection and radiation, thus reducing the urban-heat-island effect.

Roger Pham

Solar panels will reduce the vast amounts of heat generated by the power plants, further reducing urban heat island effect.


Paint the pavement white.


Unpaved areas in Arizona result in airborne dust and failure to pass federal clean air requirements.

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