In urban areas like Oakland, California, the air quality can vary dramatically from block to block.Squeezed between three freeways and overlooking a major port, Oakland is exposed to daily emissions from truck and ship engines. Pockets of soot, smog, and nitrogen dioxide hover above many of the city’s homes, schools, and community centers, while other areas remain relatively clear.
To find these pollution “hot spots,” researchers installed air quality monitoring equipment on two Google Street View mapping cars. The vehicles strategically roamed Oakland’s streets over the course of a year, ultimately logging 15,000 miles and gathering 3 million unique measurements.
The resulting interactive maps provide one of the most detailed views of pollution patterns ever created, according to researchers from the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), the University of Texas at Austin, the Google Earth Outreach program, and the startup Aclima.The team published their findings on Monday in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.Air pollution can cause or exacerbate a host of health problems, from asthma and respiratory illnesses to stroke and heart disease. Yet it’s “largely an invisible threat,” said Steven Hamburg, EDF’s chief scientist
“This new method allows us to visualize the data so communities and policymakers can identify the sources of harmful pollution and take action to improve safety and health,” he said in a statement.
The study’s maps are streaked with red, orange, and yellow veins, which allow viewers to pinpoint the precise spots where busy intersections, factories, recurring traffic jams, and other local pollution sources sully the city’s air. Air quality is often disproportionately worse in low-income neighborhoods, including parts of West Oakland.
‘The data also shows how pollution fluctuates by day, week, and time of year.
“Pollution can be remarkably variable within cities, and our new measurement technique makes it possible to clearly see this variation,” Joshua Apte, the study’s lead author and an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said during a Monday press call.
He said the mobile lab approach could be easily replicated and scaled up in other cities to help local officials and residents pinpoint their air pollution problems.
“It’s designed to be something that we could easily bring to other places,” Apte said. “There’s a potential to start collecting these data around the world.”