Mapping Methane Leaks with Google Street View Cars

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Google partnered with the Environmental Defense Fund on a pilot project to use Google’s fleet of Street View cars to map out methane levels in three U.S. cities.  The cars were outfitted with sensors to detect and record methane leaking from city pipes in the cities of Boston, Staten Island, and Indianapolis.

Leaked methane gas is a significant contributor to climate change.  According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), methane is the second most prevalent greenhouse gas caused by human activities, mostly from leaking natural gas systems and the raising of livestock.  While methane has a shorter lifespan in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, methane (CH4) is more efficient at trapping radiation than carbon dioxide (CO): “Pound for pound, the comparative impact of CH4 on climate change is over 20 times greater than CO2 over a 100-year period.

To collect the data, sensors on specially outfitted Google Street View cars collected methane concentration, wind direction and speed, and GPS location. To verify the readings, streets were driven multiple times.  After readings from the three pilot cities were taken, the data was analyzed with help from Colorado State University which included calculating the leak rate (more detail about the methodology is posted on EDF’s site)

Boston has an aging infrastructure with half of its pipes more than fifty years old and 42% of them are made of cast iron or other leak and corrosion prone materials.   Data collected from Boston showed that a leak was detected on average every one mile.

Detected methane leaks in the city of Boston.
Detected methane leaks in the city of Boston.

Likewise, Staten Island also had an average of one detected leak per mile driven.  Its pipe infrastructure also had half of its pipes that were more than fifty years old.  Data collected from this city took place between January and April 2014.  

Detected methane leaks in the city of Staten Island.
Detected methane leaks in the city of Staten Island.

In contrast, Indianapolis showed a much healthier pipe infrastructure with leaks detected only once every 200 miles driven.  The city has less than 1% of its pipes made up of corrosion prone materials and infrastructure is upgraded more regularly thanks to its Citizens Energy Group,  a public charitable trust.  The study also found that most of the leaks reported to the Citizens group are due to unauthorized digging.  

Detected methane leaks in the city of Indianapolis.
Detected methane leaks in the city of Indianapolis.

Further cities that will be included in this pilot project are Los Angeles and Syracuse.  Those interested can also nominate a city to be included in future data gatherings.

To view the maps and learn more about this pilot project visit: Natural gas: Local leaks impact global climate.


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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.