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Southern California’s Mount Wilson is a lonesome, hostile peak—prone to sudden rock falls, sometimes ringed by wildfire—that nevertheless has attracted some of the greatest minds in modern science.
George Ellery Hale, one of the godfathers of astrophysics, founded the Mount Wilson Observatory in 1904 and divined that sunspots were magnetic. His acolyte Edwin Hubble used a huge telescope, dragged up by mule train, to prove the universe was expanding. Even Albert Einstein made a pilgrimage in the 1930s to hobnob with the astronomers (and suffered a terrible hair day, a photo shows).
Today, Mount Wilson is the site of a more terrestrial but no less ambitious endeavor. Scientists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., and elsewhere are turning the entire Los Angeles metro region into a state-of-the-art climate laboratory. From the ridgeline, they deploy a mechanical lung that senses airborne chemicals and a unique sunbeam analyzer that scans the skies over the Los Angeles Basin. At a sister site at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), researchers slice the clouds with a shimmering green laser, trap air samples in glass flasks, and stare at the sun with a massive mirrored contraption that looks like God’s own microscope.
These folks are the foot soldiers in an ambitious, interagency initiative called the Megacities Carbon Project. They’ve been probing L.A.’s airspace for more than a year, with the help of big-name sponsors like the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Keck Institute for Space Studies, and the California Air Resources Board. If all goes well, by 2015 the Megacities crew and colleagues working on smaller cities such as Indianapolis and Boston will have pinned down a slippery piece of climate science: an empirical measurement of a city’s carbon footprint.
If that doesn’t sound like something Einstein would scarf down energy bars and hoof up a mountain to check out, give it time. It promises to be a groundbreaking development in the worldwide fight against global warming.
Part of the Megacities team at the CLARS facility in Pasadena. Left to right: Thomas Pongetti, Riley Duren, Eric Kort, Stan Sander. John Metcalfe
Historically, researchers have tried to understand anthropogenic global warming by looking at it from the big picture—first across the planet, then by regions and countries. But two things happened in the past few years that turned their frame of reference. First, they realized that the emissions of a large landmass are extremely difficult to measure. The signal from fossil fuels gets tangled up in a bunch of other things, such as byproducts from the natural ecosystem and agriculture.
Second, they encountered a rash of enthusiasm-killing gridlock in the United States government, with the 2009 Copenhagen climate talks ending in a muddle and a 2010 cap-and-trade bill dying in the Senate. It became clear to environmental stakeholders that if any policy was going to happen on cutting emissions, it was going to be at the scale of states and cities.