Behind the Forecast: Black Friday, Cyber Monday’s environmental impact

Listen to Science Behind the Forecast with Meteorologist Tawana Andrew every Friday on 89.3 WFPL at 7:45 a.m.
Listen to Science Behind the Forecast with Meteorologist Tawana Andrew every Friday on 89.3 WFPL at 7:45 a.m.
Published: Dec. 2, 2019 at 4:51 AM EST
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - It's the holiday season, so that means it is time to buy presents for family, friends, and yourself.

The United States Postal Service (USPS) said it is ready to deliver more than 28 million packages each day between December 16 and 21. USPS is expected to deliver an average of 20.5 million packages per day for the rest of the year. Between Thanksgiving Day and New Year's Day, USPS projects that they will make 800 million deliveries.

That's a lot of packages!

All of this shopping, in-store and online, can be affected by the weather. In turn, all of our shopping may be influencing the climate.

The weather influences how we shop and what we shop for. Warmer temperatures lasting into winter means lower demand for coats. Summer heat lasting into fall means a potential discount on fall and winter clothing that may be already in stock. Severe weather and snowstorms send people flocking to grocery stores in preparation and can even increase the number of food deliveries since people are less likely to leave their homes.

The National Retail Federation says that while sales peak for retailers during the holiday season, the weather still has an impact, even online. Online retailers can see less traffic on sunny days and much more on snowy days when people are stuck at home.

One study found that the weather's impact on daily sales could be as high as 23.1% based on store location and even jump to 40.7% depending on the sales theme.

Sensormatic predicts that the busiest shopping days in the U.S. will be as follows:

  1. 11/29/2019 – Black Friday
  2. 12/21/2019 – Super Saturday (Saturday before Christmas)
  3. 12/26/2019 – Day after Christmas
  4. 12/14/2019 – Two Saturdays before Christmas
  5. 11/30/2019 – Saturday after Black Friday
  6. 12/22/2019 – Sunday before Christmas
  7. 12/23/2019 – Monday before Christmas
  8. 12/28/2019 – Saturday after Christmas
  9. 12/27/2019 – Friday after Christmas
  10. 12/07/2019 – First Saturday in December

Billions of packages being shipped this year can have a significant impact on the environment; it depends on how we buy and what we buy.

A Carbon footprint is an estimate of the total amount of greenhouse gases (including methane and carbon dioxide) created by our day-to-day activities. The average carbon footprint for a person in the United States is 16 tons, one of the highest rates in the world, according to The Nature Conservancy.

A 2017 analysis found that two-day shipping left a bigger carbon footprint than slower options that were shipped over a week or two weeks. Faster shipping requires more diesel trucks on the ground and "less efficient shipping systems."

An MIT study found that online shopping carbon footprint is lower than shopping in an actual store. This lower footprint only exists when express shipping is not used.

Electronics are a popular gift during the holidays. Only 20% of electronic waste, or "e-waste," is recycled, according to the U.N. When electronics are thrown into landfills, lead, mercury, and other toxic chemicals could leach into the soil, water, and air.

A Ellen MacArthur Foundation report released in 2017 showed that a garbage truckload of textiles is wasted every second. This means our online shopping habits can be damaging to the environment. That report showed that "clothes release half a million tonnes of microfibres into the ocean every year, equivalent to more than 50 billion plastic bottles."

The plastic in everything from toys to furniture to the packages themselves can negatively impact the environment. It's documented that 91% of the billions of pounds of plastic produced each are not recycled. That ends up littering our oceans and various waterways, potentially harming or killing wildlife.

All the trucks and planes tracking across the country can impact the weather as well.

The exhaust from trucks contributes to cloud condensation nuclei in the atmosphere. For clouds to form moisture and condensation nuclei are needed. The nuclei are tiny solid and liquid particles that can come from smoke, volcanoes or even tiny bits of soil.

Aircraft can produce condensation trails, also known as contrails, when flying in clear, cold, humid air.

They are formed in two ways, according to the National Weather Service.

  1. Hot and humid engine exhaust mixes with air that has low vapor pressure at cold temperatures. When the added moisture and exhaust particulates mix with the cold air, the moisture condenses and the trail is formed. These are sometimes called exhaust trails.
  2. When an airplane flies through air that is clear air with a relative humidity near 100% then the pressure change generated by the airflow over the wing tip causes a drop in temperature and which causes the air to saturate. The vortex created by the wing tip finishes the process and a contrail is formed behind the wingtips These contrails are rarer and are sometimes called aerodynamic trails.

If a contrail lasts long enough or if the wind is strong enough, it can become a layer of cirrus clouds. These upper-level clouds are colder than clouds closer to the ground and the planet’s surface itself. The upper-level clouds trap heat more efficiently while radiating less heat into space, thus leading to an overall net-heating effect on our planet. One study found that these clouds can warm the temperatures as much as 13°F.

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