Studying a city that appears out of thin air

Aerial photo of a large arc of small structures in the desert with mountains in the background

Black Rock City, Nevada, the site of Burning Man. Credit: Duncan Rawlinson (CC BY-NC 2.0)

At Burning Man, Andrew Oliphant found a natural laboratory for researching the urban atmosphere

This story originally appeared on the University’s Bold Thinkers blog, which ran from May 2018 to Nov. 2019.

Later this month, 70,000 people will converge on a remote location in Nevada, transforming a dry lakebed into a bustling city only to take it all apart just over a week later. The reason? Burning Man. For some, the art and cultural event is an escape from the constraints of modern society, while for others it’s an outlet for creativity. For San Francisco State University Professor of Geography & Environment Andrew Oliphant, it’s a natural laboratory.

Oliphant initially heard about Burning Man from friends who tried to convince him to attend. But it wasn’t the free-spirited atmosphere that caught his attention. “They started describing how the city just evolves out of nothing,” he explained. “And I just couldn’t stop thinking about it for several years.”

Man in sunglasses surrounded by scientific equipment peers down at the camera

Professor of Geography & Environment Andrew Oliphant at Burning Man

A micrometeorologist, Oliphant studies interactions between the surface and the atmosphere, including in cities, where sprawling buildings and unnatural materials influence local weather patterns. Ideally, someone who wanted to understand a city’s impact on its surroundings would wait for the city to be built and compare the urban environment with its pristine past. Most scientists, of course, don’t have that kind of time — but Burning Man’s “Black Rock City” is erected in just three days each year. That was enough to lure Oliphant out to the event, so in 2013 he packed up his equipment and headed to Nevada along with some students and collaborators.

A week before the event’s kickoff, the team went to the site of the city-to-be and set up towers to measure how wind speed, temperature and exchanges of gases changed over time. They published some of their results in the journal Urban Climate in 2017.

“During the festival, the city emitted 25 grams of carbon per meter squared each day, which is similar to Mexico City and Central London,” Oliphant said. “That was slightly shocking, except that when you think about it, the population density is really high.”

Day-by-day records provided by event organizers let Oliphant see some of Black Rock City’s other quirks. Largely lacking cars, the city’s transportation sector made up an unusually small proportion of its carbon output. And the carbon dioxide breathed out by its dense population of attendees made up as much of 10% of the city’s carbon emissions. “That value was higher during the peak of the festival than the transportation sector,” Oliphant explained. “That’s going to be the only city in the world where that’s true.”

Another unusual finding was a total absence of the urban heat island effect, a widespread phenomenon where cities ratchet up the temperature of their surroundings. Scientists have a few explanations for this effect, and the sparseness of Black Rock City’s environment let Oliphant zero in on one as the main culprit: artificial surfaces like concrete and asphalt, which capture the sun’s heat during the day and release it at night, and which are absent from the ephemeral desert city.

Black Rock City’s simplicity was what made it so appealing to Oliphant as a natural experiment, but it also came with some unusual complications. When Oliphant first approached the event’s organizers to ask for permission to run the experiment, they responded with a question he wasn’t prepared for: “What’s the artistic part of your theme camp?”

Thus, “Camp Antenna” was born. To contribute to Burning Man’s artistic environment, Oliphant collaborated with musician and sound engineer Lewis Ames to translate the atmospheric turbulence data captured by his equipment into real-time music and graphics displays. The team also gave science lectures to educate attendees about their research.

“People are open-minded in general there, so even if it’s not their thing, they’ll come by camp and ask what’s going on,” Oliphant explained. “There’s something there for everyone.”