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The coronavirus pandemic has cleaned up the air on the East Coast

Published Apr 12th, 2020 9:02AM EDT
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Image: NASA

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  • Air pollution on the East Coast of the United States has dropped by as much as 30% according to data from NASA satellites.
  • A side-by-side comparison of air pollution levels from 2015-2019 and 2020 reveals the extent to which the coronavirus lockdown has improved air quality.
  • Visit BGR’s homepage for more stories.

Modern life has been forced to change in a big way since the novel coronavirus pandemic began jumping from nation to nation. Lots of us are staying home, only making trips when it’s absolutely necessary, and even then, making sure we’re spending as little time as possible away from home. The Earth, it seems, appreciates it.

NASA has been monitoring air quality around the world for many years now, but never before has the space agency noticed as dramatic a shift as it has since coronavirus lockdown measures were put into place. In a new blog post, NASA shows off some incredible satellite views of the East Coast of the United States, revealing the incredible improvement in air quality now that drivers aren’t doing nearly as much driving.

The images really do most of the explaining, so let’s get right to those. This first image shows the average concentration of air pollution across much of the East Coast from 2015 through 2019:

As you can see, there’s a massive amount throughout New Jersey as well as the southern tip of New York state and of course New York City. The pollution stretches up toward Massachusettes and down through much of Pennsylvania and Maryland. It’s all a pretty huge mess.

Now, let’s see what the pollution levels look like as of March 2020, at which point many states had issued stay-at-home orders and social distancing mandates:

That is an incredibly dramatic difference. Sure, New Jersey is still in the red, but it’s far less concentrated than previously, and overall the pollution stretching up and down the coast is significantly reduced. NASA says the data shows a drop in air pollution of 30%, which would be an incredible accomplishment if not for the fact that it took a global pandemic to get us to clean up our act a little.

“Though variations in weather from year to year cause variations in the monthly means for individual years, March 2020 shows the lowest monthly atmospheric nitrogen dioxide levels of any March during the OMI data record, which spans 2005 to the present,” NASA explains in a blog post.

“In fact, the data indicate that the nitrogen dioxide levels in March 2020 are about 30% lower on average across the region of the I-95 corridor from Washington, DC to Boston than when compared to the March mean of 2015-19. Further analysis will be required to rigorously quantify the amount of the change in nitrogen dioxide levels associated with changes in emissions versus natural variations in weather.”

The unfortunate reality of this is that once the lockdowns are lifted or relaxed, we’re likely to see air pollution levels return to their previous averages. Still, there may be an opportunity here for a larger shift in how we tackle climate change, and perhaps new, cleaner habits will stick around for longer than the pandemic lasts.