How hot and humid Singapore is trying to cool itself

SINGAPORE — The temperature had reached 86 degrees and was rising. Humidity measured at 75%. The sun shone on the tall buildings. Fou...


SINGAPORE — The temperature had reached 86 degrees and was rising. Humidity measured at 75%. The sun shone on the tall buildings.

Fourteen volunteers, six climatologists and a mobile bio-weather cart named “Smarty” prepared to leave for a “walk in the heat” in the city center of the Southeast Asian city-state. The volunteers had attached devices to measure their heart rate and skin temperature. Winston Chow, the lead researcher, watched as a trickle of sweat formed on his forehead.

Mr. Chow and his team are part of Cooling Singapore, a multi-institutional project launched in 2017 with funding from the Singapore government. The current goal of the project is to build a computer model, or “digital urban climate twin”, of Singapore that would allow decision makers to analyze the effectiveness of various heat mitigation measures before spending money for solutions that might not work. It’s research that the Singapore government hopes it can replicate around the world.

“People have always wondered what is the critical element of climate that really affects your discomfort. Is it low wind speed? Is the air temperature high? Is it high radiation from the sunshine?” said Mr. Chow, associate professor of science, technology and society at Singapore Management University.

“We’ve got this under control, it can help a lot with smarter urban design at the planning level, or how people deal with heat,” he said.

Singapore’s wealth gives it the resources to invest in such high-tech solutions. But researchers say the Southeast Asian state’s geographical position also makes it a good model for others, especially countries in the tropics. Located near the equator, the island has year-round temperatures that hover around 88 degrees Fahrenheit. Like the rest of the tropics, it has the added burden of high humidity, at an average of 84%.

The research is particularly relevant when many countries are hit by record high temperatures. heat waves in Britain, China, Japan and much of Europe killed, disrupted lives and forced tens of thousands to evacuate.

Scientists have warned that the combination of high heat and humidity – known as extreme wet bulb temperatures – is potentially one of the deadliest consequences of global warming. Prolonged exposure to certain thresholds of high heat and humidity makes it difficult for people’s bodies to cool down because they cannot sweat efficiently. It can be fatal, even for healthy people. Young children and the elderly are particularly at risk.

“We are very concerned about climate change,” said Zhang Weijie, director of energy and climate policy at the Ministry of Sustainable Development and Environment. “It’s an existential challenge for us.”

“It is so important for us to keep Singapore livable and to be able to continue the activities that we have at the moment,” he added.

Critics say Singapore could still do much more to slow the potentially catastrophic effects of climate change. Almost all of its energy supply comes from fossil fuelsand it houses one of the largest oil refining and petrochemical complexes in the world. He encouraged the near ubiquitous use of The air conditionerwhat Lee Kuan Yew, the first Prime Minister of Singapore, once called the most important invention of the 20th century.

But permanently running air conditioners in the city-state have become prohibitively expensive. About 25% of low-income households living in one- and two-bedroom social housing have air conditioners, according to a 2019 government survey. In 2019, a senior minister said air conditioners made up a “significant” share of carbon emissions from buildings and households, the second most important source after the industrial sector.

Gerhard Schmitt, the former principal investigator of Cooling Singapore, said the idea for the project originated because he asked a group of older residents in 2011 if Singapore had always been this warm. They told him it had never been so bad and that they had once been able to spot the morning dew on the grass.

Mr. Schmitt and his team of researchers began to investigate what had happened. It became clear that urbanization had made Singapore much warmer than before. Over the past few decades, the government has transformed the city-state by building tall skyscrapers, piling concrete, steel and glass where Singapore’s natural forests once stood.

This has contributed directly to what climatologists call the “urban heat island” effect, where the difference between downtown Singapore and the island’s northwest forests can exceed 12.6 degrees.

In 2017, researchers from Cooling Singapore recommended 86 ways the city-state could alter its planning, such as changing the direction of buildings to create wind flow and using district cooling systems – which deliver chilled water to surrounding buildings to cool the air – instead of relying on air conditioners.

They had also said that using reflective paints would be a good way to tone down the heat. But Peter Crank, a researcher at Cooling Singapore, said they were expensive, so the “cost-benefit is potentially difficult”.

Before Cooling Singapore, the government had not fully identified the main factors influencing the heat, according to Mr Zhang of the Ministry of Environment. Now it is able to quantify the impact of increasing greenery or reducing the number of cars in certain areas on temperatures – and adjust the measures according to the needs of each neighborhood.

Previous heat studies have typically relied on data from weather stations, which didn’t fully reflect what people like Rachel Pek, 23, felt on the ground.

With sweat rolling down her face, Ms. Pek, a climate researcher, rolled the mobile cart around the Singapore Management University campus in downtown Singapore for about an hour. Some areas, especially those without shade, were much hotter than others.

On Bencoolen Street, where tall buildings block the morning sun, the average radiant temperature — a metric that not only measures air temperature, but also radiation from a person’s surroundings – was 82 degrees. About a third of a mile away, on Queen Street, which was exposed to more sky, it was 127.4 degrees.

“The current assumption is that the presence or absence of shade in a place like Singapore is the determining factor in adaptation to heat exposure,” Chow said. To address this, Singapore has committed to plant one million trees by 2030 and has planted over 388,000 so far.

But Mr Chow said it’s not just the number that’s important, it’s also the type of tree, ideally those with “canopies with maximum shade”. “If you have small trees, like palms, it’s not going to cut it,” he said.

One of the volunteers, Shamil Kuruppu, said he had stopped taking long walks, which he enjoyed in his hometown of Negombo, Sri Lanka. Now he only trains in air-conditioned gyms.

“I really like it here,” said Mr. Kuruppu, 28. “The only complaint I have is the weather.”

Yuliya Dzyuban, a researcher at Cooling Singapore, said one of the scientists’ goals now is to find ways to create “islands of relief” in the city, places where people can feel a cool breeze or air conditioning after have walked. outside on a hot day.

Research has shown that small changes in urban design and vegetation can create these pleasurable feelings, Ms Dzyuban said. A better understanding of how and when people are exposed to heat could even help governments develop plans to encourage more people to use public transport, she added.

To get people to change their habits, “we need to think about how to make their experiences more comfortable and enjoyable,” she said. “Because otherwise they won’t.”

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