Science | March 14, 2020 7:00 am

Air Pollution Over Italy Has Declined Dramatically

Under other circumstances, less pollution would be good news — but not this way

A map of NO2 emissions
NO2 emissions above northern Italy have declined dramatically.
NASA Earth Observatory

As quarantines and social distancing take hold across the globe, the response to the current coronavirus outbreak has had a host of unexpected side effects. One of the most dramatic comes via the European Space Agency and NASA. New data showing pollution levels over Europe for the year to date shows a marked decline in pollutants — particularly NO2over northern Italy.

An article at NASA’s Earth Matters blog provides even more information — specifically, that “NO2 is a noxious gas emitted by motor vehicles, power plants, and industrial facilities.”

The data in question comes from the ESA’s Copernicus Sentinel-5P satellite, which focuses on measuring pollution around the world.

The satellite carries the Tropomi instrument to map a multitude of trace gases such as nitrogen dioxide, ozone, formaldehyde, sulphur dioxide, methane, carbon monoxide and aerosols – all of which affect the air we breathe and therefore our health, and our climate.

ESA’s Copernicus Sentinel-5P mission manager Claus Zehner notes that the drop in emissions is likely due to the extensive quarantining implemented in northern Italy earlier this month. “Although there could be slight variations in the data due to cloud cover and changing weather, we are very confident that the reduction in emissions that we can see, coincides with the lockdown in Italy causing less traffic and industrial activities,” Zehner said.

It’s difficult to look at this data without feeling an abundance of mixed emotions. What does it say about the state of the planet that a pandemic ends up having a substantial effect on the environment like this?

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