Note: This article is from Conservation Magazine, the precursor to Anthropocene Magazine. The full 14-year Conservation Magazine archive is now available here.

Visualizing Carbon

June 10, 2013

For Antony Turner, pictures make a story come alive—and in the climate change story, one of the main characters is invisible. In 2009, together with artist/scientist Adam Nieman, he founded Carbon Visuals to help people “see” the carbon dioxide that’s trapping heat in Earth’s atmosphere. Their strategy: Transform the mass (tons and gigatons) of carbon dioxide emissions we hear about so much into volumetric representations and then show them as 3-D shapes in familiar landscapes. Carbon Visuals has worked with governments, schools, corporations, and others to help them make sense of carbon footprints, comparisons, and sequestration targets. Changing the trajectory of the climate story, Turner believes, starts with getting the antagonist in our sights. (Images courtesy of Carbon Visuals)


(Above) In 2010, New York City emitted 54 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. With a single day’s CO2 emissions, the city “buries” the Empire State Building with 149,903 ten-meter-diameter spheres, each containing one metric ton of the gas.



Left: A street-level view shows the scale of the one-metric-ton spheres, assuming the CO2 gas is held at standard pressure. New York City emitted one sphere’s worth of carbon dioxide every 0.58 seconds in 2010.
Right: A single hour of the city’s CO2 emissions amounts to 6,204 metric tons. Watch an animation of the spheres piling up in real time.


Carbon Canyons



With funding from the Environmental Defense Fund, Carbon Visuals generated a 3-D map of greenhouse gas emissions from municipal buildings in New York City. They used publicly available energy data to show the actual volume of CO2 added to the atmosphere by individual buildings. The data are available to download and explore in Google Earth.


  385 Parts per Million


What exactly does the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere look like? The air around us is a mixture of gases; in the illustration above, each molecule of air is shown as a white dot. The dots circled in blue represent the proportion of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at 1750 levels, when 280 out of every million molecules were CO2. The red-circled dots represent CO2 added to the atmosphere by humans since 1750, bringing the count up to 385 parts per million in 2008. In May 2013, NOAA’s Mauna Loa Observatory measured atmospheric CO2 above 400 ppm; the last time CO2 levels were above 400 ppm was around 3 million years ago.


Carbon Emissions


Researchers at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee estimated national carbon emissions from fossil fuels dating back to 1751 by using historical energy statistics. Carbon Visuals took the data out of the confines of the spreadsheet and created this “bubble chart” to compare cumulative and annual emissions by country. Over the 256-year span, half of the CO2 produced has been released since the mid-1970s. Explore an interactive version of this visualization.


Carbon Quilt



The Carbon Visuals team imagined what it would look like if global CO2 emissions formed a uniform layer over the surface of the earth. One day’s worth of emissions would make a layer the thickness of a piece of paper (70 microns), while one year of carbon output would blanket the planet in a 31-millimeter-thick layer. Different “patches” of the quilt can be highlighted to represent emissions from an entire industrial sector to an individual car.


Carbon Visuals worked with BP’s Target Neutral initiative to help drivers calculate and visualize automobile CO2 emissions. This image shows the daily carbon emissions from all vehicles in the U.K. at the scale of a major highway junction.



The BBC commissioned Carbon Visuals to display emissions from one hour of television programming, taking into account CO2 from the production office, travel, and more. They also created an animation showing emissions in real time.



A Carbon Visuals video tells the story of emissions associated with growing, harvesting, and transporting potatoes. It begins on a small scale with one kilogram of potatoes, then zooms out to the farm level and points out where reductions can be made.



A DIY tool allows anyone to create an image of a carbon footprint on a scale they can relate to. Simply enter an amount of CO2, a title, and a caption; then embed the visualization in a webpage, blog, comment, or email.

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