Bay Area air pollution tracker gets national recognition

Friday, January 2, 2015
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A UC Berkeley professor and his team are building sensors to track CO2 in the Bay Area and gather air pollution data.

BERKELEY, Calif. (KGO) -- An innovative program to track air pollution in the Bay Area is now getting national recognition and it focuses on one of the most common sources.

If you've ever been stuck behind a smoking tailpipe, you already know where much of the Bay Area's air pollution comes from. But tracking where it's going? That's the passion of professor Ron Cohen, Ph.D.

In his lab at the University of California, Cohen and his team are building and refining sensors that track CO2, also known as carbon dioxide. We first met Cohen two years ago when he was originally installing the system.

Now, with over 20 sensors clustered in the East Bay and San Francisco, his lab is collecting detailed data that's fed into a kind of pollution weather map.

"And we're just at the point where we can turn our 20 CO2 measurements in the Bay Area and the Exploratorium into insights into what people are doing in our community," says Cohen.

Take last year, when Caltrans closed the Bay Bridge to traffic on Labor Day. The event appears on Cohen's pollution map, which recorded a marked drop in CO2 levels along the bridge and connecting freeways. And while that observation might seem apparent, much of the data collected is far more subtle.

"We'll be able to see home heating when it gets colder in winter and winter kicks in. We'll be able to see the seasonal cycle of trees taking carbon out of the atmosphere and growing in the East Bay hills," Cohen explains.

And he hopes the system will help planners make better decisions about climate change, pollution control, and public policy in the future.

In fact the Berkeley Atmospheric C02 Observation Network, as it's known, is already on Washington's radar. The White House recently recognized the project for its contributions to President Obama's Climate Data Initiative -- a federal effort aimed combating global warming.

But while understanding climate change is a global effort, Cohen believes tracking pollution on a neighborhood level can be just as valuable, providing evidence to prove the value of everything from increased BART service to anti-pollution measures recently put in place at the Port of Oakland.

"We're interested in working with people to bring climate change strategies out to communities, making the Bay Area resilient to whatever climate change comes, and showing the world how to best do this," Cohen said.

Written and produced by Tim Didion