Environmental Fluid Mechanics

, Volume 15, Issue 2, pp 373–398 | Cite as

Observations of urban boundary layer structure during a strong urban heat island event

  • J. F. Barlow
  • C. H. Halios
  • S. E. Lane
  • C. R. Wood
Original Article


It has long been known that the urban surface energy balance is different to that of a rural surface, and that heating of the urban surface after sunset gives rise to the Urban Heat Island (UHI). Less well known is how flow and turbulence structure above the urban surface are changed during different phases of the urban boundary layer (UBL). This paper presents new observations above both an urban and rural surface and investigates how much UBL structure deviates from classical behaviour. A 5-day, low wind, cloudless, high pressure period over London, UK, was chosen for analysis, during which there was a strong UHI. Boundary layer evolution for both sites was determined by the diurnal cycle in sensible heat flux, with an extended decay period of approximately 4 h for the convective UBL. This is referred to as the “Urban Convective Island” as the surrounding rural area was already stable at this time. Mixing height magnitude depended on the combination of regional temperature profiles and surface temperature. Given the daytime UHI intensity of \(1.5\,^\circ \mathrm{C}\), combined with multiple inversions in the temperature profile, urban and rural mixing heights underwent opposite trends over the period, resulting in a factor of three height difference by the fifth day. Nocturnal jets undergoing inertial oscillations were observed aloft in the urban wind profile as soon as the rural boundary layer became stable: clear jet maxima over the urban surface only emerged once the UBL had become stable. This was due to mixing during the Urban Convective Island reducing shear. Analysis of turbulent moments (variance, skewness and kurtosis) showed “upside-down” boundary layer characteristics on some mornings during initial rapid growth of the convective UBL. During the “Urban Convective Island” phase, turbulence structure still resembled a classical convective boundary layer but with some influence from shear aloft, depending on jet strength. These results demonstrate that appropriate choice of Doppler lidar scan patterns can give detailed profiles of UBL flow. Insights drawn from the observations have implications for accuracy of boundary conditions when simulating urban flow and dispersion, as the UBL is clearly the result of processes driven not only by local surface conditions but also regional atmospheric structure.


Urban boundary layer Doppler lidar Urban heat island Turbulence profiles 



Thanks to Rosy Wilson, Mike Stroud and John Lally for technical support during the ACTUAL project. Thanks to Chris Walden and Darcy Ladd for providing technical information about Chilbolton Observatory meteorological sensors. Thanks go to Steve Neville at Westminster City Council for permission to site instrumentation at the WCC rooftop site, and to BT for use of the BT Tower. The ACTUAL Project was funded under Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council Grant Number EP/G022938/1 (


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • J. F. Barlow
    • 1
  • C. H. Halios
    • 1
  • S. E. Lane
    • 2
  • C. R. Wood
    • 1
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of MeteorologyUniversity of ReadingReadingUK
  2. 2.Department of Meteorology, Met Office Research Unit (Cardington)Cardington AirfieldBedfordshireUK
  3. 3.Finnish Meteorological InstituteHelsinki Finland

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