My first word, everyone’s first word, was air.
-Simon Armitage, 2014
The History of Air
Today, the bulk of our atmosphere (three quarters) is concentrated within seven miles of the surface of our planet. That’s a quarter of the distance that most Americans drive every day. This thin layer separates us from the dangers of space, and has been responsible for sustaining life for 3.5 billion years, allowing our species to thrive over the last five thousand years.
We’ve had three major changes in our atmosphere since the birth of our planet.
Early Hydrogen Atmosphere (v1.0)
The earliest atmosphere contained the primordial gases of the solar system: hydrogen, methane, ammonia, water vapor and hydrides. This atmosphere was probably blown away by the solar winds.
The Nitrogen / Carbon-Dioxide Atmosphere (v2.0)
Starting 3.5 billion years ago, gases from the late heavy bombardment and outgassing from volcanism produced an atmosphere rich in nitrogen and carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide dissolved to form salts (metal carbonates), and the first form of biogenic life (stromatolites) began to form.
The Nitrogen / Oxygen Atmosphere (v3.0)
The waste product of photosynthesis-reliant cyanobacteria was oxygen, which first appeared 3.5 billion years ago, affecting the composition of the atmosphere. Initially, this oxygen was used largely in chemical reactions where metals reduced the oxygen taking away any oxygen from the atmosphere. Ultimately, photosynthesis reached a level of planetary scale that enabled the absorption of carbon dioxide and the production of oxygen in large amounts. About 2 billion years ago, oxygen began to collect in the atmosphere giving rise to the air we know today. Over the past one billion years, oxygen has fluctuated from a low of 15% to a high of 30%, settling at 21% for the past 10 million years or so.
Planetary Atmospheric Changes
Given the changes to our atmosphere in the past, it would be wise to pay attention to any changes we see that could impact our ultimate survival on this planet. The three versions of our atmosphere so far show that planetary scale events result in meaningful changes to the composition of our atmosphere. The solar winds, the outgassing of volcanism, and the birth of cyanobacteria at a global scale caused these atmospheric changes. Though the human species thrives in this current atmosphere with oxygen hovering around 21%, we’re now going through early changes that could have a global, irreversible impact on the air we breathe.
The vicious cycle between surface temperature warming, and the release of methane, carbon dioxide and other trapped greenhouse gases, could create a runaway effect that would change our atmosphere on a global scale. We now know these changes are material enough to impact our climate; and while it will be some time before they are material enough to change our atmosphere, they could threaten all humans. If history is our best teacher, then it’s time to not only pay attention, but intervene.
Planetary scale atmospheric changes may affect the future of our species, but pollutants already affect the health and well being of individuals.
Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, we’ve seen air quality degrade to a point where at least 90% of the Earth’s population lives in areas where the air quality is detrimental to their health. If you think this problem uniquely affects the poor and emerging markets, think again. The San Francisco Bay Area had a Non-Attainment status for Ozone and PM2.5 under the U.S. EPA standards as recently as 2017. Air pollution causes an estimated 200,000 premature deaths each year in the United States.
Air quality is so hyperlocal, that particulates and gases can vary by 10–100X over a mile — and we have no way to accurately measure these variations today. In California, a study showed that the brunt of COPD cases were borne by lower income groups closer to freeways, where the burden of fine particulates can be much higher than residential neighborhoods further from freeways.
Hyperlocal air quality is not only directly related to public health, but also industrial safety. Utilities that supply natural gas are under the constant threat of failed pipelines and gas leaks. These leaks release large amounts of greenhouse gases into the air, and can result in accidents that take lives. Industrial facilities across the U.S. and the world have an inconsistent track record when it comes to securing facilities and reporting major air pollution incidents to the Toxic Release Inventory (TRI), which tracked 698 million pounds of waste released into the air in 2016 alone.
Industrial facilities have a long list of compliance requirements from our government. Industry, for the most part, want to do what’s right, but when they lack the accurate and reliable hyperlocal data, it’s often challenging to meet the standards set to protect citizens.
The Future of Air
Given what we know today, we have to intervene if we want to protect the future of our health, safety and environment. However, intervention can only be based on the truth. And the truth about air quality can only be established if we measure it block-by-block for a wide range of pollutants.
Over two years ago, we began our foray into studying air quality at Social Capital to determine how we could invest in a platform creating a safe future for the air we breathe. We tested devices from over forty companies on a variety of parameters, such as accuracy, reliability, drift, calibration, equivalence to EPA-level reference equipment. Whether it was for particulates, gaseous pollutants, volatile organic compounds or biological pathogens, we found only one company that consistently stood out — Aclima. Aclima and its incredible team of scientists, engineers and product specialists have designed and engineered a hyperlocal air quality platform that gathers near real-time pollutant data, runs models and machine learning on a large-scale temporospatial basis and makes it available as valuable insight to its customers.
Today, we announce our partnership with Aclima, including our lead investment in their $24 million fundraise with other like-minded investors. We’re excited to work with the founder Davida Herzl and the entire Aclima team to build an environmental intelligence platform for air quality that improves public health, urban planning, industrial safety and global impact for the long run.
Some hard problems Aclima is tackling today include:
- Community Monitoring: Pollutant insight and information at every block so that city officials, citizens and healthcare providers can intervene for improved health and quality of life.
- Gas Leak Detection: Leaks from industrial accidents and utility pipelines so they can fix what’s broken and prevent hazardous incidents.
Of all of the hard unsolved problems we face, the sustainability of our planet is the most consequential. Reliably measuring hyperlocal air quality is essential to creating safer communities, both locally and globally. With this partnership, Aclima and Social Capital both commit to making it a priority for all.