The Power of Images: California Maps Greenhouse Gases

August 9, 2012, 9:45 am

The Power of Images: California Maps Greenhouse Gases

By FELICITY BARRINGER
California Air Resources Board A Google Earth visualization of the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by Southern California refineries. The green balloons’ height reflects the amount of pollution each facility emits.

One of the most significant political problems facing campaigns against air pollution these days is this: by and large, you can’t see it. You can track its molecules, watch emergency room admissions go up and down as it waxes and wanes and estimate the number of lives shortened by it. But none of that provides the jolt of, say, a picture of a tornado’s path or a river on fire.

Back in 1948, when killer smog descended on Donora, Pa., it was a visible scourge. But carbon dioxide is odorless and colorless, so the eye is no judge of gauging when pollution is better or worse. That is, until the magic of digital data visualization is used.

That is what California’s Air Resources Board is now offering. This week, state air regulators announced a new online tool that mashes their data on statewide greenhouse gas emissions from the 625 or so largest polluters with images from Google maps. Anyone with a Web browser and Google Earth can “see” how much carbon dioxide or methane or other types of greenhouse gases each facility is sending into the atmosphere.

The idea, said an agency spokesman, Stanley Young, is to foster understanding of the air board’s effort to track and reduce greenhouse gas pollution. And while a little green or pink balloon does not deliver a punch to the gut, it is light years better than a spreadsheet for bringing home the reality of what a refinery or power plant contributes to climate change.

This, of course, is not much of a leap beyond the kind of slides former Vice President Al Gore used in the lectures that became the book “An Inconvenient Truth.” Data visualizers in a quarter-century will probably regard all these efforts the way today’s video gamers view Pong.

Sun Power Monitoring Graphic of one system’s recent solar energy production

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All sorts of invisible processes are already being made visible; for instance, providers of solar systems create programs and applications that allow owners to monitor how much electricity they generate.

But with emerging methods to collect data on pollution — to tie molecules of pollution in the air or water to their original source with isotopic fingerprints — it is possible to imagine not just maps of where pollution is, or where it is greatest, but where it comes from, how it travels and what (or who) lies in its path.

For instance, the University of Pittsburgh and the Electric Power Research Institute joined together recently on research to offer scientists a relatively simple tool for conducting the chemical equivalent of ballistics testing on bullets, taking aim at nitrogen molecules.

As described in this news release and the March issue of the journal Environmental Science and Technology, the research “will allow scientists to look at rain samples and determine how much nitrogen comes from power plant stacks as opposed to how much comes from such other sources as motor vehicles, lightning, or soil.”

The power industry has been in a running argument with the automobile industry over which contributes more to the overall collection of pollutants like oxides of nitrogen or fine particulates. It could use such data to shape its arguments that internal combustion engines deserve more attention from regulators, and power plants less.

More broadly, data visualizers could help consumers and voters understand at a glance which facilities are most responsible for harm to public health, and perhaps then act on that knowledge.

Is it much more of a leap to figure out which power plants, refineries or clogged roads are partly responsible for a specific heart attack or bout of asthma?

Chronic ailments like kidney disease got extra attention from Congress when the victims could be seen and individual human suffering felt. Will science eventually give real faces to the victims of a factory’s emissions?

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