Scientists are using information from NASA’s Earth-observing satellites, on-the-ground sensors and computer-based datasets to study the environmental, economic and societal impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, the agency’s Earth Science Division recently sponsored new projects to examine how the shutdowns in response to the pandemic are changing the environment, especially the atmosphere, and determine what, if any, natural environmental phenomena might impact the spread of the pandemic.

“NASA has a unique role to play in response to this crisis,” said John Haynes, NASA’s program manager for Health and Air Quality Applications. “As we continue to collect Earth-observing satellite data on a global scale, we can aid in the understanding of global changes resulting from the pandemic, as well as investigate potential environmental signals that may influence the spread of COVID-19.”

NASA recently funded two new rapid-turnaround projects focused on COVID-19. Jennifer Kaiser at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta and Elena Lind at Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg, are examining the pandemic’s impact on air quality related to reduced airport traffic. Joanna Joiner and Bryan Duncan at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, are creating maps and images that show how COVID-19 has reduced air pollution across the world.

Air traffic in the time of COVID-19

“The world’s response to the pandemic is an unintended experiment that is giving us a chance to test our understanding of various air pollution emission sources,” said Barry Lefer, NASA’s program scientist for tropospheric composition.

Kaiser’s research is looking at how COVID-19 travel bans and lockdown orders are impacting air quality around airports. Current conditions create a unique opportunity to study airport-related pollutants, especially nitrogen dioxide and formaldehyde. It’s a footprint that will likely gradually return to its former shape as travel policies are relaxed.

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