Infrared Cameras Colorize Carbon Dioxide

By Sandy K. Johnson

In the thick of reporting on climate change, reporter Tony Bartelme of The Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina, had an epiphany:

Carbon dioxide, the prime driver of climate change, has no color, no odor, no hiss, no roar. Carbon dioxide is invisible. What if it wasn’t?

That was the nut paragraph of his project, “Chasing Carbon,” which won the National Press Foundation’s 2017 Technology in Journalism Award.

Bartelme’s assignment was to bring to life the “hidden” aspects of climate change that were in plain sight. Things such as the death of coral reefs off the coast of South Carolina. Dangerous tidal changes threatening a city of 135,000 sited at sea level. Microscopic ocean plankton’s contribution to the Earth’s oxygen supply – literally every other breath we take.

To illustrate the threat from carbon dioxide, Bartelme found a way to colorize the colorless. He borrowed a $90,000 infrared camera from FLIR Systems, an Oregon-based company that makes advanced thermal imaging devices for industry and for military customers. Then he and a videographer chased carbon all over the community. “It became a treasure hunt,” he said. Exhaust from lawn mowers, leaf blowers, cars, buses, barges and smokestacks all flared red through the lens of the camera.

Photographs and video using the technology brought CO2 to life for readers. As a result, the mayor of Charleston put the issues raised by the newspaper on the front burner: raising sea walls, building new drainage, buying property in low-lying areas. Bartelme called it “a huge, expensive, long-term effort.”

Writing tip: Bartelme’s prose has a distinctive flair – tight sentences with evocative adjectives and verbs. He uses an app called Hemingway to keep his writing at a basic level for readers.

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