What’s in the Air You’re Breathing?

James Poetzscher is a 17-year-old high school from San Francisco who became especially concerned about air pollution and greenhouse gases after California’s devastating 2020 wildfire season. With his knowledge of atmospheric science and a desire to make air pollution data accessible to regular people (not just climate scientists) he spent months creating a free, easy to use, high-resolution air quality data portal featuring various air pollutants and greenhouse gases.

He created two different versions of the data portal: one for California and one with data that covers the whole United States (which may take 10-20 seconds to load).

Preview of the portal with nationwide data

James learned about Earth Guardians after Xiuhtezcatl came to speak at his high school in 2020, and we’re happy to showcase his work here as an example of what young people can do to make a big difference in the fight against the climate crisis. To tell us more about his work, James agreed to a Q&A interview with Jecca, the Youth Litigation Mobilization Coordinator with Earth Guardians. 

What inspired you to create this data portal? 

In what has become an annual tradition, every fall, California is set ablaze by devastating wildfires. Staring out my window at the apocalyptic orange sky, I recognized how severe the air quality crisis was. Yet, at the same time, there was a lack of data for ordinary citizens to learn more about the air pollutants and greenhouse gases responsible for the hazardous air quality. I decided that, given my previous experience using satellite data to analyze and visualize global air pollution and greenhouse gas data, I had the skills to build a data portal that addressed this clear lack of data.

What’s the difference between Air Quality Index (AQI)—the air quality metric that we usually see on weather apps—and a tool like this one that uses satellite data?

I spent months programming each minute detail of the air quality data portal, working to incorporate as many valuable features as possible. Ultimately, I built a comprehensive portal that uses satellite data, features full spatiotemporal data for the United States, and enables users to average data over any region and over any time period. These features differentiated my data portal from a tool like the AQI. The AQI and other similar tools use ground data as opposed to satellite data. Ground data is only available at sparsely located ground sensor stations. This means nationwide data is either not available or is extrapolated using algorithms as opposed to being measured. Another limitation of tools like the AQI is that often they don’t enable users to distinguish between different air pollutants and greenhouse gases. While giving an overall air quality reading is helpful in determining whether outside conditions are safe, it’s less useful in understanding which specific air pollutants are driving the hazardous air quality.

By enabling users to view individual levels of each air pollutant and greenhouse gas, this tool allows ordinary citizens to learn about how different gases are distributed and how these gases connect to events such as wildfires. However, the key feature of my data portal and the factor that most differentiates it from a tool like the AQI is the ability to view averages over time. Ultimately, learning about air pollution requires an understanding of how air pollution shifts over time, especially in relation to events such as wildfires, COVID-19 lockdowns, and even shifts in season. 

What kind of information can you get from using this data portal? 

By allowing users to average data over any time period, they can address a myriad of valuable questions.

Interested in how levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2), an air pollutant largely produced by road transportation, shifted during COVID-19 lockdowns? Simply compare the average NO2 levels during a four week period of lockdown to levels during the corresponding time period in 2019 (March 24th – April 21st, 2020, versus March 24th – April 21st, 2019). Curious about how wildfires impact air pollution levels in California? Simply compare average carbon monoxide levels from August 1st – August 15th of 2020 (prior to wildfires) to August 16th – August 31st of 2020 (peak wildfires). 

What are some of the main air pollutants that come from wildfires?

Carbon monoxide is the primary air pollutant produced by wildfires, and carbon monoxide levels in California during the wildfires were the highest in the world. Carbon monoxide’s impacts on human health are devastating, and unfortunately, as wildfires likely become more severe and more frequent due to climate change, their consequences will only increase.

Why should we, as people who aren’t necessarily climate scientists, learn about air pollution?

Through my data portal, I hope to provide a tool for anyone—regardless of skill set, experience, or age—to visually learn about the air pollutants and greenhouse gases responsible for hazardous air quality and climate change. I’m confident that my data portal will allow ordinary citizens to discover crucial phenomena, such as under-the-radar air pollution hotspots, that ultimately further scientific understanding of these issues. Collective action is necessary to tackle air pollution and climate change. No amount of government research can ever hope to fully understand how air pollution impacts every neighborhood—even every block—across the country. When ordinary citizens have a tool to learn about air pollution, they have the strength in numbers to understand this century-defining issue and ultimately make crucial discoveries. By sharing these new findings with others, anyone can drive changes in legislation and shifts in human behavior, which ultimately are necessary to tackle these large-scale issues.


James Poetzscher

In addition to this data portal, James has also mapped monthly, global air pollution levels on his website, greenhousemaps.com. He has lead- and co-authored four research papers, two of which are currently in the peer-review process for respected scientific journals. His work on air pollution and climate change using satellite data has also been featured in Reuters, The Independent, and the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Advanced Study of India

If you have questions about James’ work or want to learn more about how Earth Guardians supports young climate activists, email Jecca Bowen at jecca@earthguardians.org.

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