Will air quality improvements during pandemic help with climate change? Experts weigh in

NASA's satellite images show a 30% reduction in nitrogen dioxide

MADISON, Wis. — Widespread lock downs and stay-at-home orders have dramatically reduced the amount of pollutants we are putting into the air.

Experts at NASA are using satellite technology to measure the amount of nitrogen dioxide in the atmosphere.

NO2 mainly comes from burning fossil fuels like diesel, gasoline and coal. Since most of the world is staying off the roads, NO2 levels have decreased about 30% in the regions NASA has measured.

March 2019

NASA satellite image 2015-2019

March 2020

NASA satellite image March 2020

However, experts caution the use of that data because the satellite is interpreting NO2 levels at the atmospheric level, not the ground level. NASA also notes that that measurement is a comparison of levels in March 2020 to average levels from 2015-2019.

University of Wisconsin– Madison professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences Brad Pierce said the ozone season hasn’t started yet in Wisconsin and that we will have to wait until late May or early June to take ozone measurements to see how much of an impact the pandemic has had on it. Pierce is also working with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to take ground measurements of pollutants near Lake Michigan.

“We can only observe those concentrations under clear skies,” Pierce said.

Wisconsin DNR is responsible for monitoring air quality in the state. Pierce said they will be sharing their data publicly so people are aware of the changes we are seeing globally and within our region. Measurements in Wisconsin have not yet been shared by NASA because there is currently too much cloud coverage and wind factoring in to get accurate readings.

Pierce said while the automobile traffic is down right now due to the stay-at-home order, trucks are still on the roads.

“Right now we see there’s a significant reduction in automobile traffic because of the stay-at-home orders,” he said. “But the trucking industry is still doing their part to make sure food and essentials are delivered. So we will look at how much of a reduction in changes we can attribute to automobile traffic.”

Pierce said when it comes to the pandemic’s impact on climate change, he’s not sure it will have a huge impact by us just staying off the roads for several months.

“We still have emissions of carbon dioxide. I’m sure we will see a response to our overall emissions of carbon dioxide. But because CO2 is such a long-lived gas, the signature of the reductions of emissions will be much less.”

Pierce said he knows it isn’t economically feasible to continue staying at home forever. But this has helped experts determine how much pollution can be attributed to each source, and what we can control going forward to help slow the effects of climate change.

“Now we have a better idea of what part of that overall pollution burden we can control if we did further improvements in the efficiency of our automobile traffic. Going to electric vehicles and other options like that. It’s a balance between public health of this immediate crisis and the economy,” Pierce said. “There’s also a balance in public health from an air quality and climate change perspective and the economy and we have to think about both of those.”