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Bay Nature magazineJuly-September 2012

Kids Tracking Climate, in Real Time

by on July 01, 2012

Courtesy Tracy Ostrom, Skyline High School

Maybe you take the bus to work or abandon the gas pedal on Bike to Work Day, but how do you know whether you and your neighbors are making a difference in your community?

It’s hard to know for sure, since nearly all greenhouse gas emissions are monitored on a global scale. Now that’s changing. UC Berkeley Professor Ron Cohen is leading a team that’s designing a network of real-time regional carbon dioxide monitors called BEACON (Berkeley Atmospheric Carbon Network), and they’re testing the system at schools and with community partners all over Oakland. They’re also working with Chabot Space and Science Center on a curriculum, so students at participating schools can see the data collected by their sensors and compare carbon levels on a public website (beacon.berkeley.edu).

Each “node” is a roof-mounted gray utility box containing a sensor that uses infrared light to measure local carbon levels and a computer to wirelessly transmit real-time data back to the lab at Berkeley. Thanks to digital visuali-zation tools, numerical data collected by the nodes is converted into easily understood charts and maps of pollution levels.

The fact that this is real data, happening now, is a key part of the project. “Real-time data has real impact. This data could be determining policy,” says Etta Heber, Chabot’s director of education. The first school to install a node was Oakland’s Skyline High School, and over the next year, the project aims to add 32 more schools and community partners. UC Berkeley graduate student Virginia Teige, who designed the nodes, has her sights on even bigger networks: “We’d ideally like to cover the whole Bay Area, but that’s a long-term goal.”

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