What the Wind Tells Us

A new online tool, called the Wind Map, shows how our pollution gets spread far and wide.

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I still remember the first time I sprawled on my back across the grass and watched the clouds drift by. I was about four or five years old. I found animal shapes and people shapes, and excitedly pointed them out to my little sister. The afternoon flew by as the wind blew a parade of enormous cloud-balloons through the sky. I was thrilled.

Very 20th century. Clouds are one of the few ways we can see the wind at work, along with the bend of trees and the ripple of water. But this is the 21st century. Now, thanks to the brilliant work of designers Fernanda Viegas and Martin Wattenberg, we can watch the pattern of the real wind in real time. translated as digital data on a U. S. map. It is called the Wind Map, and it is both mesmerizing — and deeply moving.

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The Wind Map is about as graphic as it gets in making a simple point: Wind connects us. It is such a huge force, moving in such enormous sweeps across our land, that it overwhelms all the boundaries we have thrown up, the ways in which we measure where we are — backyards, city limits, state lines. When I was a child, and the elephant cloud lumbered across the sky and out past the tree line, it was gone, as far as I understood. Now a child can see the wind stretch from Texas to Canada, and beyond.

Meanwhile, the adults are using the sky as a vast sewer. We are spewing air pollution laced with invisible poisons, like mercury, a potent neurotoxin, and greenhouse gases like carbon and methane. But because of the way the political winds blow, several very important regulations, including the new Natural Gas Standards to control air pollution from gas wells, the Cross State Air Pollution Rule and the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, are under attack by politicians and lawyers representing organizations that don’t feel it is necessary to regulate air quality. You can see where that leads — just take a look at the air in India and China. Here’s the way the real winds blow: we are now measuring mercury from that horrific pollution in China in our own skies.

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All you have to do to understand why mercury pollution is a national (and global) problem is overlay the wind map with pins planted in the places with the top 25 mercury emitting U.S. coal plants in the USA. Seven of the worst are in eastern Texas. But put a pin in Missouri, Alabama, Georgia, North Dakota, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Arkansas, Nebraska and Wyoming. Watch the wind sweep those toxins across our country.

It’s a lesson easy enough for a child to understand: We share the air. And yet as much time as we spend teaching children to share, we seem to forget that lesson ourselves. Here is something else children can teach us: nothing beats lying on the grass, feeling the ground beneath your body and gazing into the clouds overhead, and falling in love with our Earth. That sense of interconnectedness is what we should be sharing.

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