Satellites reveal striking impact of COVID-19 on people and air quality

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Satellite imagery and data are revealing the astonishing impact of the novel coronavirus on people and the environment.

With more than half the world’s population living under mandatory or voluntary restrictions on work and travel, Earth observation satellites are capturing views of empty highways, deserted airports and hospital construction.

Decreased industrial activity and night life are apparent in imagery captured by the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Joint Polar Satellite System.

At the same time, instruments onboard environmental satellites are showing the impact of the pandemic on the environment. As factories halt operations and businesses close, air quality is improving in hard-hit regions.

The Tropospheric Monitoring Instrument onboard European Space Agency’s Copernicus Sentinel-5 Precursor mission and the Ozone Mapping and Profiler Suite on JPSS have detected reductions in nitrogen dioxide, an atmospheric pollutant created by fuel combustion. Nitrogen dioxide concentrations fell sharply from March 2019 to March 2020 near major cities including New York, Paris, Madrid and Milan, according to the European Space Agency.

The Tropospheric Monitoring Instrument onboard European Space Agency’s Copernicus Sentinel-5 Precursor mission has detected reduced levels of nitrogen dioxide, an atmospheric pollutant created by fuel combustion. Nitrogen dioxide concentrations fell sharply from March 2019 to March 2020 near major cities including New York, Paris, Madrid and Milan, according to the European Space Agency.

Because weather conditions affect levels of nitrogen dioxide in the atmosphere, researchers from the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute are preparing to conduct a more thorough analysis.

Around the world, researchers also are gathering data from space-based instruments to gauge the pandemic’s impact on greenhouse gas emissions.

Data captured by the Ozone Mapping and Profiler Suite on the Joint Polar Satellite System shows a decline in nitrogen dioxide pollution in New York City between March 1, when New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the first COVID-19 case, to March 20, when the governor ordered all nonessential businesses to close and residents to remain indoors.

For example, data gathered during the economic slowdown is helping researchers distinguish methane emissions caused by natural sources like peat bogs from emissions produced by human activity, said Yotam Ariel, CEO of Bluefield Technologies, a Silicon Valley startup building microsatellites to detect methane emissions.

GHGSat, a Montreal startup that launched its first greenhouse gas monitoring satellite in 2016, has not seen a dramatic change in greenhouse gas emissions for the specific facilities it monitors. “But we are keeping a sharp eye on it,” said GHGSat President Stephane Germain.

GHGSat also is on the lookout for flaring or venting of natural gas. When gas prices drop precipitously, companies sometimes burn gas or release it into the wind to save the cost of moving gas from wells to processing centers, Germain said.

An overall picture of the changing makeup of atmospheric chemicals will come from NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory (ESRL) in Boulder, Colorado. Air samples captured around the world at stations on the ground, tall towers, aircraft and observatories are sent to ESRL for analysis.

“Many have speculated that the economic disruption will be reflected in atmospheric samples,” NOAA spokesman John Bateman said by email. “As is customary, NOAA will release these data to the general public once routine data aggregation and modeling practices are complete.”

Daily observations for individual air sample collection sites are available within 24 hours on the ESRL website. Global monthly mean data values, which are more likely to show changes caused by the economic slowdown, take about four months to analyze and release, Arlyn Andrews, chief of NOAA’s Global Monitoring Laboratory’s Carbon Cycle and Greenhouse Gases Group, said by email.

It’s impossible to predict how the novel coronavirus will affect atmospheric emissions over the long term. Some people think the decrease in emissions will have little long-term significance. Others disagree.

South Beach, a neighborhood of Miami Beach, Florida, usually crowded with tourists and locals is unusually empty in this March 27 satellite image captured by Maxar Technologies. Credit: Maxar Technologies

“Once people get used to not driving a car every day and realize they can work from home, is that going to lead to changing habits for a significant portion of the population,” Germain asked. The answer may depend, at least in part, on how long it takes for life to return to normal or to reach a new normal, he added.

In China, where the coronavirus emerged in December, activity halted during the crisis is beginning to pick up. Orbital Insight relies on computer vision to count cars on 4th Ring Road, an expressway encircling Beijing, visible in imagery from Airbus’ Pleiades satellite. The geospatial analytics company based in Palo Alto, California, noted a sharp decline in January and activity gradually resuming in early April.

This article originally appeared in the April 13, 2020 issue of SpaceNews magazine.