It is a shocking real-time visualization of the damage we are doing to the planet — and to ourselves.
According to the most recent estimates from the World Health Organization, 7 million people died in 2012 from breathing polluted air, either outdoors or inside their homes. But sometimes it is hard to get your head around those kinds of numbers.
This three-dimensional interactive world map, produced by an award-winning French start-up company based in Beijing, makes it easier for everyone to gauge the depth of the problem.
AirVisual uses big data to produce a stunning and almost hypnotic image of the globe, showing air pollution — the worst areas are in dark red — and wind speeds in real time. Billions of data points are collected daily, using government air-quality monitoring stations in countries such as the United States, China, Japan and South Korea, the company's own air-quality monitors in many other places, satellite imagery and U.S. government meteorological data.
“It is hard to see air pollution in your house, so we wanted to make it very visual,” said the company's founder, Yann Boquillod. “Once you see the 3-D Earth, it is almost shocking. Our Earth is really suffering from the pollution we have created.”
After a crowdfunding campaign, AirVisual also launched a "Node" air quality monitor this year that informs people about the air quality both inside and outside their homes. It won a French award for start-ups.
Some of the profits from that device have gone into creating the world map.
“We want people to understand — global warming is not coming out of nowhere. It is coming out of emissions,” Boquillod said. “We want to show how bad it is, so people have access to data — first, so they can protect themselves, and then so they can push governments to make a change.”
According to the WHO, more than 90 percent of the world's population breathes air whose quality is far below the organization's standards, while the vast majority of deaths are in developing countries, especially in cities.
As The Washington Post's Chris Mooney reported in September, the greatest concern is about a form of pollution called PM2.5, referring to particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers — so small that they can travel through the lungs and into the bloodstream. It is contributing to several problems, including heart disease and severe asthma, and the situation is getting worse.
The global health agency said it believes that a concentration greater than 10 micrograms per cubic meter of these fine particles in the air qualifies as dangerous. Yet the map, which shows anything less than 12 micrograms per cubic meter in blue and green, reveals just how much of the globe fails to meet that standard.
On Thursday, Beijing's municipal government issued an “orange alert” — the second-highest alert level — because of rising smog levels in the Chinese capital. The map shows just how much of China is blanketed in smog and how weather patterns are helping the polluted air to collect. It also shows the effect of sandstorms in places such as Saudi Arabia.