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UNCC Center City Installation Visualizes Our Air

A light installation that went up Friday night on an uptown building is more than a work of art. It’s a bit of science, too, visualizing the quality of the air we breathe. WFAE environmental reporter David Boraks went to see it.

Andrea Polli is an artist and scientist at the University of New Mexico. Since air pollution is often invisible, she wanted a way to visualize it. The result is an outdoor installation called “Particle Falls,” an animated blue waterfall projected onto the outside of the UNC Charlotte Center City building.  

It starts with a salt shaker-sized device called a nephelometer, which collects air samples on a ledge.

“So we’re getting a number from this device every 15 seconds, as close as we can get to real time, sending it to our computers in the gallery, and that’s generating the visualization,” Polli says.

Polli’s computers turn those air quality readings into an animated graphic that uses color and shape to represent clean air and dirty particles, whether it’s vehicle exhaust or industrial pollution.

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The graphic then goes to an elevated projector next to the light rail tracks, where it’s beamed onto the building’s north side.  

“This is a perfect surface for the piece, a huge white wall, relatively reflective, so the piece really pops on this wall, and we’re able to fill almost the entire 12 stories with this giant blue waterfall,” she says.

It’s only blue when the air quality is good. The colors change when traffic backs up or a heavy truck goes by, spewing exhaust.  

“And when particulate pollution is detected, depending on the levels, and you might see spots or sparkles over the waterfall. But then that might evolve, as particulate pollution becomes more intense, into a giant fireball,” Polli says.

Charlotte’s air is better than it once was. The Clean Smokestacks Act of 2002 brought a big reduction in emissions from North Carolina’s coal-fired power plants and industrial plants. 

Last summer, for the first time in decades, the Charlotte region was declared to be meeting federal air quality standards. 

“I don’t think it means we need to be any less vigilant, because people are driving more, which means we need to continue to stress monitoring the number of miles that you’re driving and really trying to take that into account, says Mecklenburg County air quality director Leslie Rhodes.  

Cars, trucks and heavy-duty construction equipment are now the main source of air pollution in Mecklenburg County. Rhodes says Polli’s installation is a good way to promote awareness. 

Air pollution is “something that is often invisible to us,” Rhodes says, and “this is an opportunity to make it visible to help people see the effects of driving on pollution.” 

Terry Lansdell helped organize the installation for the environmental and education group Clean Air Carolina.

“I hope that people will understand that the air around them has something in it. It appears clean, it maybe even smells clean, it looks clean. But we don’t know what’s in our air,” he says.

“Particle Falls” can be seen from sunset to sunrise daily until April 23 at UNC Charlotte Center city, in uptown Charlotte.


"Particle Falls" website, http://www.particlefallsclt.org/

David Boraks previously covered climate change and the environment for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.