On the second day of COP26, Clare Nattress, Lecturer in Graphic Design, explains her innovative performance research into air quality and its impacts on human health. 

My ongoing practice-based research enquiry seeks to uncover alternative ways of evidencing air pollution using a bicycle as a tool for performative art journeys. I work in collaboration with atmospheric scientists at WACL, University of York to test the samples that I collect.

With poor air quality often seen as a ‘problem of urban and higher population areas, a lot of research is therefore absent in rural landscapes (Gabrys 2012).

In 2020, I cycled from Morecambe to Bridlington along the 171-mile Coast-to-Coast route. Cycling over a longer distance allowed me to gather a larger pool of AQI data, photographs, notes, swabs, and sound recordings. I collected data along these rural routes, cycle paths and country lanes using a Plume Labs sensor.

Every time the sensor registered moderate, high, or very high levels of air pollution I would stop pedalling, take a photograph and mark the location onto a map. Based on the data actively captured, pollution levels in these locations were surprisingly high. The highest PM10 recording was 142 (Very High) in the Yorkshire Dales, a location surrounded by fields and beautiful vistas. Particulate Matter consists of tiny particles suspended in the air and sources include transportation, agriculture, and manufacturing. It is considered to be the most dangerous air pollutant and causes the most damage to our health. To give an idea of the size, PM10 is any particle measuring 10 micrometres in diameter or below and often assimilated roughly to a tenth of the width of a human hair.

This data evidences that air pollution is not just a problem for big cities but dirty air can also be present in the places where we least expect. World leaders gathering at COP26 in Glasgow this week need to be aware of the consequences for human and ecosystem health of local air quality, and that many communities worldwide have already suffered air pollution impacts for generations.


Tomorrow’s post will continue the scientific theme: Olalekan Adekola (Senior Lecturer in Geography) will ask why the voices of scientists from the Global South, especially sub-Saharan Africa, aren’t being heard in the climate debate.