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Air Quality

The Art of Air Traffic Over America

1:01 PM PST on March 5, 2009


Although this is only tangentially related to our coverage of transit and livable streets in the Bay Area (Oakland Airport Connector is as good as I can get), artist Aaron Koblin has created a remarkable series of visuals and animation that show the flight patterns of U.S. airplanes over a twenty-four hour period.

As beautiful as the stills above and below are, you must watch the animation here to get the full picture of air travel in the U.S.  Note the Eastern Seaboard with all the early morning commuter flights.

In a collaboration with Wired Magazine, Koblin created maps that break down the 205,000 daily flights monitored by the FAA, with different colors for different airplane models and cruising altitudes.  The following map is one of my favorite planes, the Airbus A-320.

Air_Traffic_6.jpgA-320 regional jets flown in the U.S. over 24 hours

Though the imagery is beautiful at first glance, the effects of increasing air travel, and the attendant environmental risks of emitting CO2 and other greenhouse gases right into the troposphere, are troubling.

PBS had a very interesting report on the effect of airplane contrails on cloud cover and ambient worldwide temperature, though scientists are still at loggerheads about what effect contrails have on global warming.  After the September 11th attacks, when all airplanes were grounded in the U.S. for three days, scientists had the chance to study the effects of airplane travel on a phenomenon known as global dimming, or the cooling affect of cloud increased cloud cover caused by man-made particulates.  Some have suggested that global dimming has masked the effects of global warming and that the effects of greenhouse gases may be more severe than we understand.

Air_Traffic_7.jpgAn infrared satellite photo taken by Nasa over the Southeast

We wonder what would these maps look like if Obama is successful stimulating the intercity rail network and longer high speed corridors.  As is happening in Spain, shorter intercity flights are being replaced by rail trips, which would have a tremendous impact on CO2 levels in the U.S. particularly if those trains are powered by electricity produced from solar, wind, and other renewables.


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