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Generation COVID: I built satellite maps in my bedroom to fight air pollution during COVID-19

Thursday, 19 November 2020 14:38 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A woman walks across a field on a smoggy morning in New Delhi, India, November 13, 2017. REUTERS/Saumya Khandelwal

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My maps showing declining air pollution during the pandemic have been published around the world. Young people can make a difference

By James Poetzscher, a 17 year old student interested in atmospheric chemistry, with a focus on air pollution and climate change

COVID-19 has upended life for the world’s residents, and particularly for us young people.

Some are attending college on Zoom, others hunting for work in a depleted job market. Dark times.

But as a 17-year-old with my life ahead of me, I’m determined to look for the upsides.

And there’s one bright spot in this pandemic I’m fixated on: air quality.

Two years ago, as a 15-year-old, I was shocked to learn that something as innocuous as air was devastating people worldwide: air pollution is the fourth leading killer worldwide, responsible for 7 million deaths annually.

I felt helpless simply spectating as our world collapsed under the threats of air pollution and climate change.

I wanted to visualize air pollution and greenhouse gases and since mapping pollution is fundamental to understanding climate change, I expected to find endless maps online.

Yet, as I scoured the internet, I found next to nothing.

So I decided to do it myself.

I spent the fall of 2019 working with satellite data to create maps of monthly air pollution and greenhouse gas concentrations globally and displayed them on a website that I built myself.

Then in March 2020 as COVID-19 spread around the world something amazing happened.

The blue hotspots of pollution that dotted major urban areas disappeared from my maps.

As governments worldwide enacted lockdown measures, the dramatic curbing of human activity resulted in an unprecedented decline in air pollution.

Where once cities like Shanghai and Milan were veiled with a layer of grey smog, now they were home to blue skies and flocks of migrating birds.

I redesigned my maps to be dynamic, zoomable and high resolution. I spent all day on these maps: lunch breaks, evenings, mornings before school.

After the European Environmental Bureau contacted me and asked if I would map the global decline in air pollution on their behalf, I spent months using satellite data to create maps depicting the change in levels in various cities worldwide, from Beijing and Shanghai, to Delhi, Paris, London and Los Angeles.

My maps were published on major news outlets including Reuters, the BBC and the Independent.

I share this not to boast but to illustrate how quickly something like air pollution can become a trending topic, on the minds of people worldwide: even a few days of lockdown transformed the planet.


In August, raging wildfires sparked an air pollution crisis in my home state of California and I found myself staring out the window as a glowing orange apocalyptic sky enveloped San Francisco.

My response was to build an air quality data portal for various government and non-profit organizations. I really hope the portal will enable my fellow Californians to learn more about air pollution and climate change, and ensure their safety.

These projects have been the greatest challenges I've taken on and I’m proud they all played a small role in illuminating how human activity impacts the environment.

It’s crucial that we learn from this bright spot in what has otherwise been a devastating year and make long-lasting changes focused on curbing air pollution. Regardless of age, we can all make a difference.

I’m currently focusing my efforts on building an inexpensive, lightweight sensor installable on drones to detect nitrous oxide, the third most prevalent - and a particularly potent - greenhouse gas.

I plan to ship the sensor to scientists in Bangladesh, where nitrous oxide levels are some of the most concentrated in the world. Hopefully, my sensor will aid the effort to curb emissions, thereby slowing climate change.

I hope to continue my work addressing air pollution and climate change, and by sharing data and research I can spread my knowledge on these topics with others to truly make an impact.

Ultimately, my future, like that of many young people, is uncertain.

Finding a job in these turbulent times will be difficult. But I hope that humanity learns from the air pollution decline we experienced amidst the COVID crisis and takes steps to ensure this downturn is permanent.

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