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December 12, 2017
CONTACT: Arthur Hirsch
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Tracking Climate Changes – Neighborhood by Neighborhood
Johns Hopkins science team launches Baltimore monitoring project

If you don’t like the weather, perhaps you could just move a few blocks away. Summer could be cooler, less smoggy, more healthy.

Newswise — Research supports the existence of these “microclimates” in urban areas, and Johns Hopkins University climate scientist Anna Scott wants to know more. She’s launched a project to measure neighborhood-to-neighborhood differences in Baltimore, an effort that she hopes will alert residents, guide city planners and ease some of the impact climate change could have on people.

“Cities could use systems like this to know block to block” how factors such as traffic patterns, landscape and urban design affect climate in neighborhoods differently, said Scott, who is studying for her doctorate in the Johns Hopkins Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences.

Scott will present the project this week to a gathering described by the American Geophysical Union as the largest earth and space science meeting in the world. The AGU fall meeting in New Orleans is expected to draw more than 20,000 people to the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, where they will hear about research into the Earth and worlds beyond.

Scott will talk about the WeatherCube. This white plastic container, about the size of a tissue box, is equipped with sensors and a wireless Internet connection. Powered by solar energy, the WeatherCube monitor measures temperature, humidity, and several gases indicating air quality: ozone, nitrogen chloride, nitrogen dioxide, hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide. 

The device is timed to take measurements four times a day and convey these to a server via wireless once a day.

Scott, research colleagues and four people hired through the nonprofit Civic Works job-training program spent the summer and early fall building the cubes and placing them in Baltimore – most in the city, one in Baltimore County. They mounted 50  monitors on trees, buildings, porches, fence posts, in backyards and churches. Scott had one mounted on her own front porch.

“It’s a pretty solid first step,” said Scott. “Having a network with 50 monitors through a city is pretty big,” she said, especially if you consider that the Maryland Department of the Environment has 25 monitors across the state.

“We think we can add to that” coverage, Scott said, even if the WeatherCube is not nearly as fine an instrument as the state Department of the Environment version and is not subject to federal regulations. On the other hand, it’s also much less expensive at about $300 per monitor, and the researchers are more interested in the comparison between one station and another than they are in very precise measurements at any one monitor.

So far, ranges of ozone are showing up about as expected – in the 10 to 40 parts per billion range, during night and day respectively. Yet to come are full calculations of variations from one neighborhood to another that could show the difference in, say, air quality due to the amount of car and truck traffic at intersections where vehicles sit for long periods of time waiting for lights. Temperature differences due to the amount of green space versus paved surfaces could also show up in the measurements, as they have in other microclimate studies conducted by Scott and other scientists.

Public officials could make changes to improve these conditions, if the information on microclimates is persuasive enough, Scott said.

“We can start to get at more and more of these things that affect people’s health that they might want to know about,” Scott said.