You know the Google Street View cars when you see them: the ones with the big 360-degree cameras mounted on their hoods, and maps painted on their sides. Not only are the cars taking photos for Google Maps, but they’re now also helping to fight climate change.
Google Earth Outreach has partnered with the Environmental Defense Fund to map methane leaks across Boston, Indianapolis, and Staten Island in New York City.
Spoiler alert: Boston has a lot of leaks. One per mile, to be exact.
The Google cars measured one methane gas leak for every mile they drove in Boston, where aging cast-iron pipes are prone to corrosion. Around half the city’s pipes are at least half a century old.
Methane, a natural gas, travels through pipelines below the city streets to heat our homes and power our stoves.
But it’s also a greenhouse gas, which means that if it leaks from the pipes and absorbs the sun’s heat, it warms the atmosphere and contributes to climate change. 25 percent of today’s manmade global warming is caused by methane emissions.
Methane can also cause explosions.
In June 2014, after a gas leak in April caused an explosion that injured a dozen Dorchester residents, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick signed a strongly-worded bill to accelerate pipeline upgrades.
Indianapolis, another city in the study, showed much fewer leaks than Boston: approximately one leak per every 200 miles. The city’s great track record mainly stems from a successful pipeline replacement initiative in the 1980s.
To gather their data, the EDF and scientists from Colorado State University attached newly developed methane sensors to three Google Street View Cars. The cars drove multiple times around the three pilot cities to verify their data.
The sensors measured not only methane concentration, but also GPS location and wind information and speed. Using all this information, researchers can calculate where the leaked gases came from, and where they will eventually end up.
The mapped areas in Boston are all serviced by the major gas supplier National Grid.
Explore the EDF’s interactive map of Boston here.