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Pollution is down during pandemic, NASA says

Posted at 9:48 PM, May 13, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-13 23:25:19-04

CLEVELAND — Pollution is down in Northeast Ohio and in other parts of the country and world, and experts say stay-at-home orders during the COVID-19 pandemic have contributed to that decrease.

Images from NASA show a pollutant called nitrogen dioxide, emitted from cars and burning fossil fuels, among other things.

"What we’ve seen over the last two months is, worldwide, there’s been a decrease in nitrogen dioxide," said Ana Prados, a research associate professor at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who also works with NASA at its Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

Prados said tracking nitrogen dioxide gives us a "fingerprint" of human activity and emissions. According to NASA, pollution has been steadily decreasing over the last 15 years in most of the U.S. Prados attributed that to regulations, including more efficient cars.

"Better pollution controls, coal plants closing," Prados said. "Less reliance on the fossil fuels for electricity."

During the pandemic, pollution's drop is due in part to people driving less and factory shutdowns, although it's not clear how much those factors are contributing to the decrease, or how much other factors like weather and chemistry are contributing.

"The weather varies a lot from year to year, as we know," Prados said. "This March might have been a lot cloudier, rainier than others. So research is underway to tease out the different components."

"We've changed the environment and the way we interact with it," said Peter Whiting, a professor of earth, environmental and planetary sciences at Case Western Reserve University. "Perhaps you've seen images from India where communities can see the Himalayas, that they hadn't been able to see in decades because of the pollution, or you go to the L.A. area and you do a certain day last year and a certain day this year, and you can see more."

Whiting said Northeast Ohio's pollution comes mainly from its high density of people and industry. He said what we've seen in the last two or so months shows we can change our behavior, and we don't need a pandemic to do so.

"I don't wish that we have done this experiment for only that knowledge," Whiting said. "But if you take what we can get out of a bad situation and try to figure out whether there is something to learn, that would be one."

He said as people have changed their behaviors to flatten the coronavirus curve, they might also consider changing their behaviors to bend the curve on global warming and air pollution. That doesn't have to mean people can't drive or that industry has to shut down.

"Instead of driving half as much, maybe we could return to driving as much," Whiting said. "But if the fuel efficiencies of our car were double what they are, we would put half as much pollution in the environment."

Prados suggested people can take individual steps to reduce pollution, such as working from home more often and buying local food, which reduces pollution from transportation.

Whiting also suggested using more sustainable fuels.

"If our factories are not burning fossil fuels, coal or natural gas, but instead are more, you know, using things that are sustainable, we would realize the improvements in the atmosphere that we've been shown under these unfortunate circumstances," Whiting said.