COVID-19 News

Argonne scientist describes environmental effects of COVID-19

It’s estimated that at least one-quarter of the world’s population, or roughly two billion people, are now under some form of stay-at-home order because of the coronavirus.

This significant slowdown in economic activity has also led to an environmental impact, particularly in the air. And it’s already being seen from space.

Scott Collis, an atmospheric scientist at Argonne National Laboratory, said satellite imagery and other atmospheric monitors are already showing a dramatic reduction in pollution.

“Over China there was a 50% reduction in things like nitrous oxide and carbon monoxide due to the shutting down of heavy industries and factories,” he said.

Some studies have also shown a drop in those same pollutants in New York, Collis said, but that was more likely due to a reduction in traffic than reduced emissions from factories.

The sharp decline in commercial air travel is also reducing pollution. However, Collis said, the drop in the number of planes flying is also, perhaps surprisingly, impacting our ability to forecast the weather.

“Commercial aircraft are actually instrumental in taking profiles of air temp, humidity, wind speed and direction. This is most important on takeoff and landing because you get a nice measurement where you can see how these change with height,” said Collis. “Before this coronavirus shutdown of air travel, NOAA would receive approximately 900,000 measurements every day from these aircraft. At the moment, this has dropped to about 300,000.”

Collis said the extent to which this loss of data might affect forecasts is “open to question.”

One hopeful sign amid the crisis is that there are small signs of how quickly natural systems may be able to bounce back when human behavior changes. But that may be wishful thinking.

“I think time will tell. I think we need hard data to look at this,” Collis said. "These things happen at various time scales. We’re still very early in terms of planetary response, in terms of how the Earth breathes and changes in this changed situation. So I think we will see the signature of this event in the data for many weeks to come.”

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