The Hestia project 

Mapping pollution, house by house

Two years from now, according to Purdue researchers, when you open up Google Earth to spy on neighboring industrial parks or residential compounds in Indianapolis, you will also have the option to check out how much each house (including your own), business or other man-made site is polluting.

For the Hestia project, named after the Greek goddess of hearth and home, a Purdue research team will track emissions in Indianapolis at a greater detail than ever before achieved, and then transform the data collected into an interactive (orthographic) map of the city’s pollution levels. As a part of Mayor Peterson’s Indy Greenprint initiative, the Purdue Climate Change Research Center and the City of Indianapolis announced their collaboration on Hestia this October. Not only will the finished product aid climate scientists in their research and politicians in their decision-making, it will also help citizens determine exactly what their impact is on the environment, and compare their own pollution levels to those of their neighbors.

Indianapolis is the pilot city for Hestia, so while Purdue researchers plan eventually to expand their program to the rest of the country, Indianapolis residents will have a unique opportunity to evaluate their carbon footprint before such data becomes available anywhere else in the world.

Purdue Peace Prize winner

The project coordinator for Hestia is Kevin Gurney, Ph.D. in ecology, assistant director at the Purdue Climate Change Research Center and a co-winner of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for his contributions (along with 2,500 of his colleagues) to the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Gurney, 46, doesn’t look old enough to have won such a vaulted honor. His bright red hair and a goatee create an angular Mephistophelean look, a single earring connotes hipness and his style is both figuratively and literally laid-back: His interview with NUVO was conducted reclining in the grass near a Step It Up event in Broad Ripple at which Gurney had just given a speech.

Since it was announced in early October that he would be among those climate scientists receiving the Peace Prize, Gurney has received a few more speaking requests, although he’s ambivalent about the recognition. “I’m not sure I individually deserve anything; the organization definitely deserves their share of that prize,” Gurney says. “It’s a great organization, and it’s a lot of people that have really worked hard for no money.” For the IPCC’s most recent report, Gurney contributed a part of one chapter about his other scholarly interest, the relationship between climate change and the global carbon cycle (the exchange of carbon between oceans, land, the atmosphere and animals).

With colleagues from Purdue and elsewhere in academia, Gurney is finishing up work on a NASA-funded project similar to Hestia: the Vulcan project, named after the god of fire and volcanoes. This winter, his team will release the results of Vulcan, which maps carbon emissions in the U.S. at a resolution of 10 square kilometers, an improvement on previous readings that achieved a resolution of only one degree squared (as in one degree by latitude and longitude). The difference between the map before and after Vulcan is striking: Before Vulcan, you can see only a checkerboard of color-coded emissions numbers, with maybe four or five squares (or measured zones) to a state; after Vulcan, you can zoom in on any state in the union and get detailed readings that resemble a red-blue, Republican/Democratic vote at the township or county level.

Hestia and long-range planning

While the results of Hestia will open some eyes, Gurney doesn’t think that citizens should wait two years to change their behavior: “I would say that certainly we know lots of things that we can all do that are win-win solutions, that save money and also help climate change, so that if it turns out we didn’t want to do that, we still saved money, so it’s not a problem. There’s no reason not to do those things.”

Like the great majority of his colleagues, Gurney has no objection to the basic theory that global temperatures have risen since the mid 20th century due to human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. But he thinks there’s a need for more detailed research in order to supplement the established theory of global warming and find effective long-term solutions. “The truth is in the next five years, we’ll do the easy stuff, like smart lighting, and industry will do all sorts of things for energy efficiency; that’s low hanging fruit. But once we’re done with that, that’s when we’ll have work to do, and that’s what I’m worried about, the interim period that’s going to be tough. So we know that the only way that we can do that is we have to have a lot of information, so that we can be very smart and spend money where it’s going to have the payoff.”

A lot of information needed for the Hestia project has already been collected, and much of the job for the team at Purdue will consist of bringing together various bits of data to build a comprehensive picture of the city. For businesses and cars, air quality data is already recorded, whether for traffic studies or to meet federal guidelines. For residential areas, researchers will have to get a little more creative. Gurney explains, “We can’t get information on individual homes; that’s a privacy issue. However, what we can do is we can build a statistical model. So if we know how old a house is, the last time it was sold, if we can get utility bills, if we know how many people live in it through census data, if through employment statistics we can find out how many people are home and how many people aren’t, then we can take this information and start to build models of individual homes.”

The future of Indy Greenprint

Allison Gritton, director of environmental affairs for the City of Indianapolis, thinks Hestia will be helpful in at least two ways: “This will aid education because citizens will be able to look at the program in order to see their emissions. Also, it allows us to target problem areas or patterns so that we will know where we can make the most improvements.”

Mayor-elect Greg Ballard recently told NUVO that he plans on maintaining the Indy Greenprint initiative that was launched this summer by Mayor Bart Peterson, which includes the Hestia project.

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Scott Shoger

Scott Shoger

Scott Shoger staggered up to NUVO's door one summer afternoon, a little drunk, poor and crazy-haired, muttering about future Mayor Ballard. He was taken in, hosed down, given NUVO-emblazoned clothes to wear and allowed to work in exchange for food and bylines. Refusing to leave the premises, he was hired on as... more

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