UC Berkeley researchers create carbon dioxide sensor network in Oakland

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In order to provide more accurate carbon dioxide measurements with their new approach to sensor networks, UC Berkeley researchers are climbing roofs across the East Bay installing equipment called “nodes.”

Along with Director of the Berkeley Atmospheric Science Center Ronald Cohen, graduate students Virginia Teige and Katja Weichsel are building and installing Oakland’s first carbon dioxide sensor network across the city, already streaming the data from nine locations hourly to the web.

The team aims to prove that the aggregate of 40 spread-out sensors — the ultimate goal for the end of this summer — provides more accurate and useful data than one extremely accurate sensor in one location.

When Teige climbs up to the roofs, she carries a 45-pound stand, a tool box and a node — a 25-pound steel box that holds a white, cylinder-shaped carbon dioxide sensor along with sensors for carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, ozone levels, temperature, pressure and humidity.

Although she complains about bruises and sunburn, Tiege takes pride in the visual display of the carbon dioxide emissions that the data help create.

Up until this project, the available data about carbon dioxide emissions has provided an accurate global picture but, according to Cohen, does not provide data on a scale that the public needs for regulation, especially as more public policies require more detailed regional measurements. Cohen has already seen interest from local government agencies and plans to meet with the Bay Area Air Quality Management District about potential collaboration.

“It seemed like there wasn’t an observing strategy that paralleled the political strategy,” Cohen said. “I wanted to give direct observations that could allow people that make policy to think about which of their many possible actions are cost effective after the fact.”

By looking at the pattern in emissions or taking an average across the network known as BEACON — Berkeley Atmospheric CO2 Observing Network — Cohen said he believes his research will eliminate the way in which scientists currently have to extrapolate data from one location.

“I think that understanding cities is an important piece of understanding both the effect of the environment on human health and the effect of people on climate,” Cohen said.

The project began about two years ago, and a few sensors have now been installed for three months without any failure, which Teige says is extremely successful. The network currently consists of nine locations, including seven schools as part of a plan to integrate the data from the sensors into the school’s science education this fall in collaboration with Oakland’s Chabot Space and Science Center.

“It actually serves in my mind as a way to connect them very directly with increasing CO2 because they will see data from their school site,” said Chabot Space and Science Center Executive Director Alexander Zwissler.

As well as the schools, sensors have been set up at the Chabot center and Oakland Zoo and will soon be installed at the new San Francisco Exploratorium.

After this summer, Cohen said he hopes the team can learn the optimal network locations from the pilot program but also expand the network across the Bay Area.