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Reductions in Nitrogen Dioxide Air Pollution Associated with Reductions in Traffic and Electricity Demand due to Recent Lockdowns

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While less air pollution may seem like a great thing, the recent improvements in air quality around the world are resulting from efforts (e.g., lockdowns and stay-at-home orders) by cities and countries to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution, which is emitted when fossil fuels (coal, gasoline) are burned, comes out of our tailpipes and smokestacks. Therefore, we can use changes in NO2 levels as an indicator of these changes in human activity.

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NASA's Fleet of Earth Observing Satellites: Monitoring Our Planet's Health

NASA has a fleet of Earth-observing satellites whose instruments observe our planet's oceans, biosphere, and atmosphere. Several of these satellites have instruments that observe air pollutants around the world. The data collected are being used by air quality managers and researchers studying the impact of air pollution on human health and agriculture.

Air Pollutants Observed from Space

Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2): NO2 is unhealthy to breathe and is primarily generated during fossil fuel combustion, so thermal power plants and automobiles are the dominant sources.

Ozone (O3) & Precursors: At Earth's surface, O3 is unhealthy to breathe and also negatively impacts plants, reducing crop yields.

Particulate Matter (PM) & Precursors: PM are tiny particles (e.g., smoke and dust) that cause numerous health issues when breathed in.

Impacts of Air Pollution: How Satellite Data Can Help

Human Health: Exposure to outdoor air pollution is responsible for an estimated 4 million premature deaths annually with about another 3-4 million resulting from exposure to indoor air pollution; that is, air pollution is responsible for about 1 in 9 deaths worldwide (WHO, 2018;  Cohen et al., 2017).

Agriculture: The economic impact of crop yield loss due to pollution is significant all over the world. Air pollution causes global crop yield losses for wheat, corn, and soybeans that are estimated to range from $11-18 billion annually, with the greatest economic loss estimated to occur in the United States ($3.1 billion).

Before and After: World Nitrogen Dioxide Levels, 2005-2016

Global ABS Visualization for 2005Global ABS Visualization for 2014
Image Credit: 
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

The slider above shows satellite data of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) from the Aura Ozone Monitoring Instrument (OMI) data for two years, 2005 (left) and 2016 (right). The data indicate that levels of this pollutant changed significantly over the last decade in many places around the world.  Slide the bar from back and forth to see these changes.  More information on NO2 trends for each region and more than 300 world cities can be found under the Nitrogen Dioxide tab.

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