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Earth Matters

How the Coronavirus Is (and Is Not) Affecting the Environment

March 5th, 2020 by Kasha Patel

The coronavirus (COVID-19) epidemic is first and foremost an issue of human health and safety. But as people have changed their everyday behaviors and patterns to contain or avoid the virus, there have been some subtle effects on the environment. There also has been misinformation. Below are four ways the virus is—and is not—affecting the environment in China. 

1. Satellites found decreases in one air pollutant, but that doesn’t mean the air is free of all pollution.

Data source: Tropospheric Monitoring Instrument (TROPOMI) on ESA’s Sentinel-5 satellite
Image credit: Josh Stevens / NASA Earth Observatory

On February 28, we reported how decreases in industrial, transportation, and business activity since the coronavirus outbreak had reduced levels of atmospheric nitrogen dioxide (NO2) over China. But researchers note that a measurable change in one pollutant does not necessarily mean air quality is suddenly healthy across the country.

In February, news outlets reported unhealthy air pollution in Beijing, which was largely affected by airborne particulate pollution known as PM 2.5. As reported in the South China Morning Post, “weak winds, high humidity and a strong thermal inversion had trapped bad air in the city.” NASA satellites also showed a high load of airborne aerosols. Measurements of aerosol optical depth depict how the abundance of natural or manmade particles in the air prevents light from traveling through the atmosphere to the ground.

Beyond aerosol emissions, weather also plays an important role in determining air quality. NASA/USRA researcher Fei Liu notes that wind patterns and the height of the planetary boundary layer — the lowest layer of the troposphere near Earth’s surface — are important meteorological factors. Planetary boundary layer height influences how air pollution mixes vertically in the atmosphere. If the height of the boundary layer is high, then air pollutants can move higher into the atmosphere and concentrations will be lower near the ground (and vice versa). Liu and her colleagues are currently studying how changes in such meteorological factors may have influenced the decrease in NO2 before and during the quarantine.

For more information on NASA’s long-term measurements of nitrogen dioxide, please see this page.

2. During the quarantine, roads and transportation hubs are emptier.

Street traffic cleared out near the Wuhan train station during the quarantine. Image credit: Planet Labs Inc.

It is no surprise that road traffic in China’s major cities has been lighter, as many people have been forced to stay home and public transportation has been shut down. Satellite imagery from Planet Labs captured scenes of reduced traffic and empty parking lots near the Wuhan train station and airport. Trains stopped running around January 22, when the first quarantines began. And compared to late January 2019, domestic flights within mainland China this year dropped by 60 to 70 percent.

Bridge traffic disappeared during the quarantine. Image credit: Planet Labs Inc.

3. Coal and oil industrial activities have dropped, so carbon dioxide emissions have also decreased.

A report in Carbon Brief stated that key industries in China were operating at much lower-than-normal levels during the quarantine. Oil refinery operations in Shandong province, for instance, were at their lowest since 2015. Average coal consumption at power plants also reached a four-year low. As a result, carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions were at least 25 percent lower in the two weeks following the Lunar New Year compared to 2019. However, that decrease in CO2 emissions for two weeks would only reduce annual totals by approximately 1 percent.

Image credit: Carbon Brief

4. There is no evidence that cremation ashes are increasing the levels of sulfur dioxide in the atmosphere.

In February 2020, a map floating around on social media showed increased sulfur dioxide (SO2) concentrations near Wuhan. Some news outlets prematurely speculated that the elevated levels of SO2 were due to an increase in human cremation.

The data for the map came from NASA’s GEOS earth system model and were not based on real-time observations of SO2. NASA’s Arlindo da Silva explained that while the GEOS model assimilates many ground-based and satellite observations to constrain meteorological conditions such as winds, humidity, and temperature, it currently does not ingest any real-time observations of sulfur dioxide. In the model, the concentrations of SO2 are estimated from historical emissions sources that are transported around the globe by atmospheric circulation. Therefore, da Silva said, GEOS model simulations cannot account for variations in SO2 concentrations arising from a sudden change in human activity (like a quarantine). Essentially, the model output of enhanced SO2 was not completely reflecting reality in this case.

Secondly, as the writers at Snopes pointed out, sulfur dioxide is commonly associated with burning coal — not burning human corpses.

24 Responses to “How the Coronavirus Is (and Is Not) Affecting the Environment”

  1. Vivian says:

    I saw the image changes for China as a result of the covid19. I would like to see the same kind of images for other parts of the world. Do you have that available on your website somewhere?

  2. Goran says:

    Can you post photos also from other parts of the world? Like Europe and United States?

    • America says:

      Please Join to Share our Facebook Page: People need to see the positives so when they reenter society they take with them the memory of a clean Earth and put procedures into place to mimic it and help save the our beautiful, exhausted planet!!!!

      • Tina Usuga says:

        Which is the page on Facebook?

        • Amy says:

          Not everyone has nor uses Facebook! Is it too much to include the rest of us by posting the information on YOUR website? Why even have a website if you are determined to use it only to tell people to look for the answer on a different site owned by you? You are wasting everybody’s time by sending us all on “wild goose chases”. My time is just as valuable as yours. Stop wasting it and be socially responsible by posting the information on YOUR WEBSITE so the rest of us who do not have nor use Facebook can be informed!

  3. Tommy says:

    As earlier posts, please share similar photos on a global level.
    Thank you

  4. Rose says:

    Can you post images of Kurdistan , we have had a three day curfew . Would love to see the difference on air pollution

    • nasaistabul says:

      Kürdistan resimlerini görmen için ilk önce Kürdistan diye bir devletin olması gerekiyor aslanım benim

  5. Nuria says:

    We would like to see the same kind of photos for Spain, if it is possible.
    We are in a state of alarm and we can’t leave our house, everybody are at home.
    Thank you,

  6. COCO says:

    Covid-19: Globally, authorities have confirmed more than 170,000 cases of the coronavirus; 77,786 recovereds and more than 6,500 deaths.

  7. Harfiyah Haleem says:

    Please keep the atmospheric effects pictures and graphs coming in for our Climate awareness campaigns. We need to encourage people to learn better habits as a result of the Covid19 measures and gain hope for a better future.

  8. Marc says:

    As humans are spraying millions of liters of Corona Disinfectant on our streets, buildings, and homes. How is that affecting pets, livestock, and eventually our seas & rivers as it runs off?

  9. Shaquille says:

    You know the saying “the good with the bad”.

  10. Ronel Slabbert says:

    I would love to also see the changes before and after!

  11. Donald Campbell says:

    It seems reasonable to say that the increase in atmospheric water content, as an effect of climate change, may correlate with the migration of the corona virus around the globe. Any comments?

  12. Amy says:

    What if the virus survived the cremation process, and was somehow dispersed as particulate matter? Do you have a video showing how long air pollution from China might take to reach Italy? And Iran? And so on? Do you have thermometers strong enough to take body temperatures of the masses? Can we see clusters of people with fevers? It rained in Wisconsin yesterday, and there was a big spike in confirmed cases here (so I was told). Could those two things have any correlation? PS. We love the images.

  13. jesuina gonçalves says:

    a natureza está muito agradecida ao coronavirus porque reduziu ao seu habitat natural (as cavernas) aqueles que mais poluem o planeta (os humanos) obrigada coronavirus apesar de querer- te longe de mim, estás a ajudar todo o planeta, coisa que os humanos na sua ganãncia não fazem

  14. Marc says:

    Now China has given the “greenlight” for factories to mass produce without any environmental constraint. It would be interesting and dreadful to see a comparison picture of the air quality before, during, and after the Corona virus pandemic.

  15. Dany Hilton says:

    We invite all the participants across the world to attend the International Conference on Global Warming and Natural Disasters during June 01-02, 2020 Sydney, Australia. The theme of the conference is “Alarming Signs of Global Warming!! Preventive solutions towards climate catastrophe” and to encourage young minds and their research abilities by providing an opportunity to meet the experts in the field of Global Warming and Natural Disasters. Global Warming Congress 2020.

  16. Emmanuel Lepoutre says:

    Hello, what is the effect of this change of habits on climate change? Are there good news on that front?

  17. RAMESH CH GARG says:

    What effect of atmospheric temprature been noticed on Novel Corona spread & over itself ?

  18. Harmony says:

    So to my knowledge, the Covid-19 is effecting all countries all over the world right now as we speak. China has gotten better and the united states have gotten worse we have more confirmed cases than both China and Italy. Then again I feel everyone is suffering as this pandemic, unfortunately, gets worse. I feel that this virus that cannot be cured at the moment has a lot of not only people suffering from illness and changing their everyday lives, It’s not a surprise to me that it is also affecting our earth in many ways explained in this article. I think that these changes will possibly stay the same for a while after the world goes back to “normal” because I feel things like this don’t just go away so easily it takes time. I think that it is absolutely outstanding that china has gotten better considering that is the place the virus came from in the first place but why do you think they’ve gotten better and as the United States still stands at a worse position? In my opinion, this is because they have attempted to make a change by shutting all workplaces down and imposed travel and quarantine restrictions on broad swaths. As they are making all these changes and some states in the United States have not still. I think the United States needs to do more things to try and help our economy while we can.

  19. Denish Verma says:

    Do you have something about India or near by related to pollution / environment ?
    How it will impact Indian Economy as compared to others ?
    How it will impact Chinese economy ?

    Please share some statistics ?

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