NASA Goddard Space Flight Center researchers Armin Mehrabian, Brandon Smith, and Nima Pahlevan are assessing the impact of COVID-19 on water quality with Landsat-8 and Sentinel-2 data products. This image highlighting changes in Chlorophyll A levels in Venice, Italy, was presented at the 2020 American Geophysical Union fall meeting. Credit: NASA

SAN FRANCISCO – Researchers are continuing to explore the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on Earth’s environment and to consider any implications for public policy.

That is one of the takeaways of the ongoing American Geophysical Union virtual fall meeting, which features dozens of talks and posters from researchers drawing on satellite imagery and data to reveal changes in deforestation, snowpack reflectivity, water quality, atmospheric aerosols and many other barometers of environmental health.

“It’s going to take some time to determine what happened and the extent of COVID-19 impacts and effects on the land surface,” Timothy Newman, U.S. Geological Survey National Land Imaging program coordinator, said during a Dec. 7 press conference. “There’s certainly more research that needs to be done, but I think it’s pretty clear [the pandemic] had an impact.”

Newman’s research relied on Landsat data to show deforestation accelerated in Brazil in 2020. “One cause could be COVID,” Newman said, noting that the pandemic may have prompted reduced enforcement of environmental regulations.

Meanwhile in Peru and Columbia, Landsat, Sentinel-1 and Sentinel-2 data revealed less deforestation in 2020 than the previous year.

“If we can tease out what change occurred because of COVID-19, it us gives us a better understanding of all change that happens on the Earth’s surface,” Newman said.

During the press conference, Ned Bair of the Earth Research Institute at the University of California, Santa Barbara, presented evidence of greater snow albedo or brightness in the Indus River Basin, where snow melt supplies water for 300 million people.

For this study Bair and fellow researchers from the University of Utah and the University of Colorado, Boulder, relied on data from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectrometer on NASA’s Terra satellite.

“During the lockdown, the snow and ice was cleaner by about 36 parts per million,” Bair said. Cleaner ice melts more slowly. “This is particularly important in areas where people aren’t able to control their water supply,” Bair said.

Nima Pahlevan from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center shared ongoing research to detect water quality changes with Landsat-8 and Sentinel-2 data products.

When New York instituted a stay-at-home order, Pahlevan and his NASA Goddard colleagues noted a significant drop in sewage discharge into the rivers around Manhattan, which they were able to detect from space.

“We’re still working on further localizing our analysis in Europe as well as in the San Francisco Bay Area to see how exactly COVID-19 has been impacting the surface water quality conditions,” Pahlevan said.

Once researchers figure out how the pandemic-driven pause in some types of human activity affected the environment, they can better forecast the impact of future pandemics or policy changes.

“We’re very interested in learning how an aquatic ecosystem would respond to lower pollution levels,” Pahlevan said. It would be interesting to see the impact of lower pollution levels on fisheries and on the near-shore environment, he added.

Bair said the pandemic also offered “a glimpse of how a cleaner world could look. That’s a powerful message that is widely understood.”

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...