Google Searching for Gas Leaks on Staten Island

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A Google Street View mapping car with special sensors to locate and assess gas leaks.

Those Google cars outfitted with camera towers aren't just snapping photos of buildings and roadways for Google Maps's Street View. Some are part of an experiment to combat climate change — a partnership between the Environmental Defense Fund and Google to study pollution using sophisticated sensor technology.

The technology behemoth outfitted three of its cars with methane sensors. Scientists with the Environmental Defense Fund and Colorado State University spent two years experimenting with the system and developing algorithms to crunch the data to locate and assess gas leaks. Today, they are scheduled to release preliminary results showing maps of gas leaks on Staten Island, as well as Boston and Indianapolis.

The scientists found nearly 1,000 leaks on Staten Island — which was an easier borough to map with the sensors than a more dense area like Manhattan. That mirrors federal safety data, which shows that New York has some of the oldest and leakiest pipes in the country. A gas explosion in March killed eight people in East Harlem.

The special Google cars aren't necessarily looking for leaks that pose a public safety threat. Gas companies regularly inspect their lines for such leaks. Instead, the scientists are looking for lower level leaks that can send significant amounts of methane into the atmosphere. The data could help utilities and municipalities prioritize repairs. 

The Environmental Defense Fund and Google plan to map more cities for gas leaks. Scientists also hope to use the cars to map other air pollutants.