Coronavirus Shutdown Leads to ‘Dramatic’ Decline in Chinese Pollution Levels
Satellite data collected by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the European Space Agency (ESA) and shared by NASA's Earth Observatory Monday show a steep decline in nitrogen dioxide levels over China between Jan. 1 to 20 and Feb. 10 to 25. The two periods coincide with the time before and after Chinese officials implemented a quarantine in Wuhan, the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak.
"This is the first time I have seen such a dramatic drop-off over such a wide area for a specific event," air quality researcher at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center Fei Liu said in the NASA post.
Nitrogen dioxide is a noxious gas emitted by cars, power plants and factories. Short term exposure can aggravate the symptoms of asthma, and longer term exposure can cause people to develop asthma and be more vulnerable to respiratory infections, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The decline in emissions over China came after Jan. 23, by which point transit in and out of Wuhan had been halted and local businesses had been shuttered, NASA said. The decline in pollution levels began over Wuhan and then spread across the country.
Nitrogen dioxide levels have fallen before, but never so steeply and widely, Liu said. They fell gradually in several countries after the 2008 recession, and temporarily in Beijing during the 2008 Olympics.
Scientists also usually observe a decline in Chinese pollution levels at the end of January and beginning of February, when businesses and factories close for the Lunar New Year. However, the pollution levels usually rise again when the celebration is over, but this year, they have not.
"This year, the reduction rate is more significant than in past years and it has lasted longer," Liu said. "I am not surprised because many cities nationwide have taken measures to minimize spread of the virus."
Further images shared by NASA show how 2020's pollution levels did not rise after the holiday the way they did during the same time last year.
For an even broader view, the Ozone Monitoring Instrument (OMI) on NASA's Aura satellite has been collecting nitrogen dioxide levels for 15 years. This year's nitrogen dioxide levels in eastern and central China were 10 to 30 percent lower than the average levels for this time of year between 2005 and 2019.
"There is always this general slowdown around this time of the year," NASA air quality scientist Barry Lefer said. "Our long-term OMI data allows us to see if these amounts are abnormal and why."
Emissions have fallen in the past because of economic upheavals. The economic crisis triggered by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 significantly reduced greenhouse gas emissions because people in the region stopped eating meat as prices rose and purchasing power fell, leading to a decline in meat production, Nature explained.
COVID-19, which has so far sickened almost 89,000 people in 65 countries and killed more than 3,000, has already spooked the global economy. Stock markets fell last week by more than 10 percent, and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development warned Monday that the continued spread of the new disease could cut economic growth in half and drive several countries into a recession, The Guardian reported.
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.