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Satellite Images Show Air Pollution Plummeted In China During COVID-19 Lockdown

Ryan Ford 18 Mar 2020

To say that life has changed dramatically for large portions of the world since the calendar changed over to 2020 is almost an understatement. Lives have been upturned and put in peril and livelihoods put on hold as the world comes to grip with a pandemic the likes of which we've never seen in our lifetimes.

The idea that there might be a silver lining to it all seems perverse, and yet, in at least one regard, there has been some good news to come out of it all.

It has been haunting to see once-bustling streets emptied during the coronavirus lockdown.

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The activity we have come to expect on a daily basis is simply gone as health authorities ask people to stay inside their homes as much as possible and distance themselves from each other when they're out and about to prevent the spread of disease.

As North America starts to experience it, China already went through it, and the lockdown had a remarkable knock-on effect there.

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China is notorious for its air pollution.

Between the nation's many factories, the coal-burning power plants, and the traffic, air quality in cities like Beijing is often some of the worst in the world. When Beijing hosted the Olympics in 2008, efforts were made to clean up the air, including shutting down factories and limiting auto traffic, and it worked.

Not only did the reduction in air pollution in Beijing help the athletes compete, but later studies showed that the heart health of citizens briefly improved, only to worsen again when the air quality also worsened again.

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Now, with the coronavirus pandemic keeping millions upon millions of people off the streets, China is once again seeing an air quality improvement.

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The satellite image comparisons are stunning. NASA and the ESA released a side-by-side image showing the concentration of airborne nitrogen dioxide over China just over a month apart — before and after the lockdown — with the noxious gases all but disappearing over that time frame.

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China does traditionally see a bit of a drop in air pollution around this time of year anyway.

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During the Lunar New Year, businesses and factories generally shut down to celebrate the holiday. However, the difference between this year and 2019 couldn't be more stark, as the above image shows.

"This is the first time I have seen such a dramatic drop-off over such a wide area for a specific event," said NASA air quality researcher Fei Liu.

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The story at ground level is just as dramatic.

Locals who have been able to go out again with coronavirus cases in China finally dropping have been sharing images on social media of clear, blue sunny skies without a hint of smog to be seen.

It seems like it's only a matter of time before the smog returns, but the locals look determined to enjoy it while they can.

h/t: NASA Earth Observatory

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