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  • Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

A big one up, but a bigger one down
February 25, 2009 - 4:42pm

Conventional wisdom has it that 70% of the information received from a message is based on how the messenger looks, 20% on how the messenger sounds, and only 10% on what the messenger says. I'm sure those numbers are accurate, because they've been cited by Eddie Izzard in public presentations, and if he's not an expert, who is?

On that basis, one of my big hopes for getting the truth of climate disruption through to the general public has been the evolution of visual presentations of relevant data. Not so much the qualitative data -- that's out there, in pictures of tsunamis and fires and drought. More the quantitative data mapped onto geography. Images which speak to people where they live, because the images actually show where they live.

A team at Purdue recently released the first such mapping of which I'm aware. From a sustainability wonk's perspective, it's a pretty nice tool. Of course, I don't know how much play value it will have for the general public (which wasn't its intent).

The map exists as an overlay on Google Earth (you'll need the Google Earth plug-in to your browser), but the data source is the US government, so data is presented only for the USA. It's moderately interactive, in that you can choose to see data for emissions in total or per capita; by state or by county; and for all activities/sources or for a selected one. I've looked at many of the permutations, and one of them has already raised questions in my mind.

If I look at county-level data for residential activity (home heating and the like) on a per-capita basis, four areas of the country jump out at me. Three of them are no big surprise: North Dakota ("50 below keeps the riff-raff out"), the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and northern New England -- all places where even brass monkeys need to come in from the cold.

But the fourth location kind of surprised me. Utah.

Admittedly, my personal experience of Utah is limited. I have traveled through it only once, and that in the summertime. But when I think of cold winters, I think of Minnesota (or even August in San Francisco) long before I think of Utah.

Am I just ignorant about Utah's winter weather (certainly a possibility)? Or is there some characteristic of Utah residential construction, or Utah home heating technology, which makes the state's private houses particularly energy inefficient?

Or -- the possibility has to be considered, especially since the data presentation is new -- is there a flaw in the data which is producing anomalous results?

The unfortunate fact is, I'm probably playing with the Purdue map more than I should be, as a way of distracting myself from a MAJOR heartache on a related subject. The Orbiting Carbon Observatory -- NASA's $287 million satellite which was to map carbon dioxide sources and sinks at a level not currently possible -- failed to separate from its first-stage booster during launch, and fell into the ocean somewhere near Antarctica. The OCO was my -- and a lot of our -- great hope for direct, near-real-time measurement of the major greenhouse gas, allowing for more detailed modeling and better correlation with both causes and effects. It's a heart-breaker. One can only hope that NASA will try again. Asap.


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