John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
A new app from Texas researchers shows how clouds of lung-pummeling ozone move through Houston neighborhoods.
Smartphone technology makes it easy nowadays to avoid thunderstorms. Just download a Doppler-radar app, and you'll rarely be caught in the middle of a cornfield with a monster tornado passing through.
And now there's an app that monitors chemical weather – in particular, the noxious clouds of ozone that noiselessly drift through cities, scorching lungs, triggering asthma attacks and herding urbanites toward their premature deaths.
The free "OzoneMap" (iTunes, Google) will only help the residents of Houston, but that's no small thing: The Houston/Baytown/Huntsville region comes in eighth place for most ozone-polluted cities in America, as ranked by the American Lung Association. Persistently sunny weather, a battalion of petrochemical facilities and scads of fuming cars on the road make Houston a nightmare for anyone who's chemically sensitive. For these folks, walking outside is like playing a lower-stakes version of Russian roulette, with 30 to 40 days of the year fogged with hazardous levels of ozone.
Texas does post hourly ozone readings from a couple dozen monitors throughout the Houston area, but their Excel-like appearance with flurries of numbers might be daunting to people who like a more visual presentation. That's where the OzoneMap comes in. Designed by specialists at the University of Houston, the Air Alliance Houston and the American Lung Association, the program shows a real-time map of Houston stalked by huge red and purple blobs, representing ozone blown about on the wind.
The app makes it clear that while some neighborhoods might be rife with foul air, others are relatively clean. Theoretically, if people were fleet-footed enough they could use the app to beat a course through the city that avoided these crawling toxic air masses altogether.
The researchers say they hope this technology will be helpful to people who've become desensitized enough to Houston's reoccurring ozone storms that they don't check the weather each day. Now, all we need is an app like this for every major city in the world (London's already got one!), and we all can breathe safely.