Behind the Forecast: COVID-19’s environmental impact

Listen to Science Behind the Forecast with Meteorologist Tawana Andrew every Friday on 89.3 WFPL at 7:45 a.m.
Listen to Science Behind the Forecast with Meteorologist Tawana Andrew every Friday on 89.3 WFPL at 7:45 a.m.
Published: Apr. 3, 2020 at 9:57 AM EDT
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - We've been dealing with the COVID-19 for the past few months, and it's had devastating consequences. The virus has killed thousands of people and infected hundreds of thousands more.

Its impact has been more than physical; it has also been environmental. With millions of people advised or ordered to stay at home, the planet has reacted in various ways.

At the beginning of 2020, emissions in China fell 25% as officials told the population to stay home. According to NASA scientists, the drop in nitrogen dioxide pollution was initially seen near Wuhan but eventually spread across the entire country. "NO2 primarily gets in the air from the burning of fuel," according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency. "NO2 forms from emissions from cars, trucks and buses, power plants, and off-road equipment."

Usually drops like this are seen across China around the Lunar New Year celebrations, since more people are staying home and not working, but the drop we've seen this year is 10% to 30% lower than what's usually observed around this time, according to NASA.

Factories closed, and China's coal use dropped by 40% at the country's six largest power plants compared to the last quarter of 2019.


New York researches have said that carbon monoxide emissions, mainly from cars, have been reduced by almost 50% compared to last year. CO2 emissions have also dropped by five to ten percent over New York, according to Columbia University.

Satellite images have shown nitrogen dioxide(NO2) emissions dropping over northern Italy, the United Kingdom, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Spain.

There are various reasons why we’ve seen these changes. According to researchers at Lund University, transportation makes up 23% of global carbon emissions. They also explained that flying and driving make up 11% and 72% of transportations’ greenhouse gas emissions, respectively.

People have shared pictures from Venice of more clear water in canals millions of times across social media. The cleaner-looking water is not being credited to a drop in pollution but a lack of boat traffic. The Venice mayors office said, “The water now looks clearer because there is less traffic on the canals, allowing the sediment to stay at the bottom.”

These changes won't last forever. Once our lives return to a semblance of normal, emissions will increase again.

Scientists say that how long the pandemic lasts will influence how long it takes for emissions to bounce back.

Early March data from the European Space Agency showed that nitrogen dioxide levels have increased since activity has resumed in China.

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