NEW ORLEANS — At first glance, Miles Traer seems like any other scientist at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union. He wears an oversize identification badge on a lanyard around his neck and can discuss at length the role of water in planetary landscape transformation.
But this Stanford University geologist has an alter ego. Like a real-life Captain Planet (minus the blue skin, plus a deep knowledge of data science), he beats back the forces of environmental destruction and holds the super-powerful to account.
Traer and two colleagues have calculated the carbon footprint for nine heroes from the comic book canon — and realized that Earth might be better off if they stopped trying to save it.
The results are enough to make several people wince as they walk past Traer's presentation in AGU's cavernous poster hall earlier this month. According to Traer's research, most superheroes would use up hundreds of times more fossil fuels than the average American.
Barbara Gordon, the computer wizard also known as Oracle, is by far the worst offender: Even if her servers ran on a combination of clean energy sources — nuclear, hydroelectric, solar, wind and geothermal — running them would still release more than 1.3 billion pounds of carbon dioxide per year.
But Gordon's DC Comics associates are hardly better. To run at the speed of light, the Flash would need to consume 59,863,610,416 calories per second — the rough equivalent of a 12-foot tall hamburger every week. That adds up to nearly 90 million pounds of carbon dioxide per year. Meanwhile, flying alone would require Batman to burn the fossil fuel equivalent of 344 plane rides from New York to San Francisco.
"Plus Batman drives around a car that literally shoots fire out the back," Traer says. "That has to be terrible for the environment."
Sim Jones, a meteorologist for Cherokee Nation Strategic Programs who has wandered over from the atmospheric science section of the poster hall, nods his agreement: "And the Batmobile is definitely not a hybrid."
That makes Traer chuckle.
The superhero presentation is one of a series; further down the row of poster presentations, paleontologist Ryan Haupt (who also worked on Traer's project) is pointing out inaccuracies in Jurassic Park — for one thing, the movie is populated mostly with dinosaurs from the late Cretaceous, the period after the Jurassic ended 145 million years ago. Meanwhile, glacier expert Martin Truffer is examining the dubious physics of a Game of Thrones-style wall of ice.
This poster presentation session is Traer and Haupt's brainchild, conceived in response to a call-out for proposals from AGU's Sharing Science program. They call it "Science and Sci-Fi: Using Real Science to Explore Fictional Worlds."
"Ryan had this idea to connect science to things people already care about," Traer explains. Science fiction and fantasy seemed like the perfect vehicle: The genres are all about world-building, "and so is geology."
With his presentation, Traer hopes to get people thinking about their own carbon footprints. Each of the nine superheroes he analyzed — Oracle, the Flash, Batman, Iron Man, Jessica Jones, Firebird, Spider-Man, Superman and Swamp Thing — reflects some aspect of humans' fossil fuel consumption. Spider-Man needs to manufacture his carbon nanotube webbing. Firebird depends on combustion to conjure tornadoes of flame.
"If I calculate my own carbon footprint, that's a bummer," Traer says. "But if I calculate it for Batman, things get interesting."
To further make his point, Traer considers how his heroes might lessen their impact on the environment. By going vegetarian, the Flash could reduce his emissions from 90 million pounds of carbon dioxide to just 3 million. If Bruce Wayne stopped spending money on Batman gear, he could pay for carbon offsets for the entire population of downtown Chicago.
The implied message: If a masked vigilante with too much money and a shortage of good judgment can redeem himself, you can, too.
"In learning how to make this better" — Traer points to a circle on his poster illustrating the carbon footprint of the Flash's hamburger-based diet — "we can learn how to make this better" — he points to a much smaller circle representing the footprint of an average American: 44,093 pounds of carbon dioxide per year.
A few superheroes may even be role models for the rest of us. For example, Superman, who draws his power from the sun, is a poster child for solar energy. The only hitch comes from his day job.
"Clark Kent works in print media — all that wasted paper," Haupt says.
Meanwhile, Swamp Thing, an anthropomorphic pile of muddy organic matter, is a potential champion of carbon sequestration — the process by which plants suck carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it as biomass. Although swamps themselves are net greenhouse gas emitters (because of the methane-producing microbes that dwell in their mud), if Swamp Thing was operating in a tropical rain forest (the planet's most carbon-negative ecosystem), he could pull a little more than 2 pounds of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere every year. That's assuming that Swamp Thing is the size of Andre the Giant, with a surface area of about 3.7 square meters.
By the time Traer finishes explaining carbon sequestration, several people have gathered around his poster. Robin Madel, an analyst for a sustainable food foundation, wants to know why Traer didn't include villains. "A super villain is just trying to ruin everything. If they have a big carbon footprint, that's least bad thing they did today," he replies. Jones, the meteorologist, is discussing with Haupt whether Batman should be responsible for the greenhouse gases emitted by all of Wayne Enterprises.
"Clearly there's an audience for this stuff," Traer says as he surveys the crowd.
Haupt laughs. "Turns out, scientists are nerds."