Cornell University: AreaHub website shows local environmental dangers

A new database allows users to search any U.S. ZIP code, city name or even an address to learn about extreme weather concerns like hurricane or wildfire exposure, and nearby environmental industrial hazards such as Superfund sites, neighborhood brownfields or problematic nuclear reactors.

Pick a place: Type in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, for example, to learn that the nuclear reactor Three Mile Island 2 on the Susquehanna River was operational for fewer than 90 days before it shuttered March 28, 1979 after a major accident. It also shows that the island is less than 12 miles from the Pennsylvania capital.

AreaHub.com aggregates and pulls together regularly updated, available data about natural and human-made hazards. It was co-founded by the late William Pence, Ph.D. ’89, to help consumers, researchers and businesses make informed choices about risk. Before his death in 2020, Pence had served as the chief operating officer of WebMD and chief technical officer at AOL, and he chaired Cornell’s College of Engineering Advisory Board.

“Supporting people’s right to know about local risks, which could pose a danger to themselves or to people they care about, is fundamentally the moral thing to do,” said Katherine McComas, professor of communication in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, who conducts risk research and serves as a risk advisor for the website. “What is more important, though, is helping people to place those risks into a context and equip them with knowledge on how to respond.”

Lauren Chambliss, senior lecturer in communication (CALS), also contributes content to AreaHub’s Knowledge Center.

“Katherine and I were both excited to contribute to a website devoted to science-based data, as that website could translate complex information into an accessible format,” Chambliss said. “It’s for people who want to know something about the ever-changing environmental and climate picture in the places where they live, work and play.”

AreaHub features explanatory notes on earthquakes, natural gas pipelines, fracking, floods, radon, understanding air quality and severe weather. It also has a new podcast, Climate Clear.

“From the beginning, what excited me about AreaHub is the website founders’ commitment to doing this,” McComas said. “That is, to alerting people of a hazard, but also giving people the tools to make informed judgments on how to react.”

Website co-founder Alison Gregory, the company’s president, said that a rapidly changing climate means increased environmental risks, which in turn raises society’s need for information about potential increases of environmental hazards.

“The first step to becoming prepared is to get conversant about your area’s environmental health and climate perils,” she said.

“Once you learn your area’s risk picture, consider mitigation options and take steps to prepare or reduce your family’s exposure to hazards,” Gregory said. “We want to inform and empower people and businesses, so they can make healthy and wise choices.”

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