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A Google Street View car is driven in Sundsvall, northern Sweden September 13, 2011. Street View, which enables users of Google Maps to view photos of streets as well, has been around since 2007 -- sending its cars out to take photos of city streets -- and covers about 30 countries. Photo by Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters

Google Street View can now map invisible gas leaks in your city

We encounter natural gas every day. For many Americans, it lights oven fires to make breakfast in the morning and to provide heat at night. But this reliance comes with an invisible network of pipes under our feet, and those pipes come with invisible leaks in residential areas. These leaks, in addition to creating dangerous pockets of flammable gas, also release large amounts of methane, a major contributor to the greenhouse gas effect.

Current methods of locating gas leaks take a lot of time and resources, but scientists may have devised a better way of pinpointing these trouble zones: Google Maps.

Ecologists at Colorado State University outfitted Google’s fleet of Street View cars with special methane detectors. As the cars snapped pictures of cities, they also collected street by street data on the amount of methane in the vicinity.

These electronic bloodhounds roamed the streets of five places in the country: Boston, Indianapolis, Syracuse, New York, Burlington, Vermont, and the Staten Island borough of New York City. Boston, Syracuse and Staten Island topped the charts due to antique pipe systems.

“The cities that were leakier, their systems were comprised of older materials.” said Colorado State University ecologist Joe von Fischer, who led the project published Wednesday in Environmental Science & Technology. “Some of these pipelines were from the late-1800s!”

The researchers did run into some trouble during the project’s development because many city buses run off of natural gas. Get too close to one, and the methane detectors get muddled. To bypass the problem, the team repeated the tests in locations where the readings were highest — to control for any tailgating that may have occurred.

Google offers use of its digital cartography resources to nonprofits through the Google Earth Outreach program. Previous examples of this include the Jane Goodall Foundation using software to raise awareness of deforestation, and the Living Oceans Society to help monitor the coastline of British Columbia.

Pipeline replacement programs could use this new method of locating gas leaks to target problem areas with extreme precision. By doing so, cities and customers could save money on utilities and remove a major source of greenhouse gas. The scientists estimated that if the largest 8 percent of leaks were repaired, than it could reduce methane emissions in these cities by 30 percent.

“If you look at the total amounts of methane and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, you can see that the contribution of methane is about half that of CO2 [carbon dioxide],” said Steven Wofsy, a geologist at Harvard University, who was not involved in the study. “This is a wonderful tool to help improve the gas distribution system.”

Full data of the cities surveyed can be found on the website of the Environmental Defense Fund.

“We have the potential to really learn more about environmental quality in places where people really live and understand the air in these locations.” von Fischer said.

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