Last week, thousands in New York and millions at home watched the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, an annual, multi-hour affair that fills the streets of Manhattan with characters like Pikachu and Snoopy in the form of massive, inflatable balloons. This video is a little bit like that—except instead of cartoon characters, the objects filling the streets of NYC are huge blue spheres, and instead of making kids smile, they’re intended to visualize the massive amount of carbon dioxide the city pumps into the atmosphere every day. Snoopy, you might want to hold your breath.
The clip is based on a piece of data that showed up in a report published by the Mayor’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability last year: In 2010, New York City added 54 million metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. At a moment when our national debt is in the trillions, the number of people in poverty around the world is in the billions, and when we’re all getting, like, a million emails every day, it’s easy to let a number like that pass by without much interrogation. So to give New Yorkers a better sense of the scale of that atmospheric pollution, the emissions-centric graphics outfit Carbon Visuals rendered it as something that’s perfectly easy to understand: a bunch of massive, aquamarine balls.
At standard pressure, assuming a temperature of 59 degrees, a metric ton of CO2 gas would fill a sphere with a diameter of 33 feet—about half the size of the biggest floats in the Macy’s parade—with a new bubble popping up every 0.6 seconds or so. The video shows what that output would look like if all those emissions emanated from a single point on the island.
Unsurprisingly, they add up fast! In just an hour, the unruly pile is already about half the height of the Empire State Building. After a day, the pile tops the building’s apex, engulfing dozens of city blocks. And after a year, well, things look pretty bad. The pile of blue spheres is now something more like a mountain, its peak among the clouds and its summit spanning from the Financial District all the way up to the southern border of Central Park.
It’s a terrifying picture—but not necessarily the whole one. For one thing, emissions don’t pile up quite so cleanly; the problem is as big as the video shows it to be but not nearly as localized. But more important to keep in mind, as some observers like WYNC’s Robert Krulwich have pointed out, is that cities actually fare way better than suburbs in terms of CO2 emissions per capita. Even the New Yorkers floundering here in their carbon dioxide ball pit are roughly three times more efficient than your average automobile-dependent American. But the idea that cars are the big problem is a bit off the mark, too—75% of New York City’s emissions in 2010 came from buildings, not vehicles.
That means, to hit its ambitious target of a 30% reduction in emissions by 2017, the city will need to focus not only on smarter transportation but smarter living and working spaces in general. And it also means we probably won’t have to put the parade on the carbon-cutting chopping block anytime soon.
[Hat tip: NPR]