India’s Air Pollution Plummets in COVID-19 Lockdown
India is home to 21 of the world's 30 most polluted cities, but recently air pollution levels have started to drop dramatically as the second-most populated nation endures the second week of a 21-day lockdown amidst coronavirus fears, according to The Weather Channel.
While the complete shutdown of India's economy was designed to stop the spread of COVID-19, it is having an ancillary health benefit of clearing the air that millions of people were choking on, according to CNN. As vehicles stay off the road, construction is put on hold, and factories stop production, the levels of microscopic particulate matter, or PM 2.5, start to drop.
"It is true that pollution levels are going down and will continue to be lower as a result of lockdown," Pawan Gupta, senior scientist at the Earth Sciences of Universities Space Research Association at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, told Earther in an email.
Recent heavy rains in the north and west of the country have also helped the country's pollution levels, Gupta added. "Rain is a very effective aerosol removal process from the atmosphere and can bring down particulate matter values," he said.
Since the March 25 lockdown that forced 1.3 billion Indians to stay home, air quality in New Delhi, usually the worst in the world, has dropped to "satisfactory" levels. The lockdown order shut down offices, schools, movie theaters, malls, markets and "non-essential" service providers. All modes of public transport such as metro trains, buses, inter-state trains and domestic and international flights for civilian movement have also been stopped, according to Quartz.
The effect of the lockdown has been dramatic. In New Delhi, where flights have been diverted because smog shrouded the airport, the air pollution levels have dropped 71 percent in just one week. On March 20, the air had an unhealthy 91 micrograms per cubic meter of PM2.5. On March 27, just a couple days into the lockdown, that level fell to 26 micrograms per cubic meter. Anything above 25 is considered unsafe, according to the World Health Organization, as CNN reported.
"I have not seen such blue skies in Delhi for the past 10 years," said Jyoti Pande Lavakare, the co-founder of Indian environmental organization Care for Air, and author of upcoming book Breathing Here is Injurious To Your Health, to CNN. "It is a silver lining in terms of this awful crisis that we can step outside and breathe."
Data from the Central Pollution Control Board of India's Environment Ministry also showed a 71 percent decrease in nitrogen dioxide levels. Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata and Bangalore have also recorded a drop in these air pollutants, according to CNN. In Mumbai, the financial capital, air quality levels in March 2019 averaged 153 on the Air Quality Index, which ranks as unhealthy to breathe, according to Reuters. New Delhi averaged 161 last March.
The tops of skyscrapers were visible and some residents told Reuters they could spot more stars than usual.
"The air quality is likely to slip into 'good' category soon. It is due to reduced vehicular traffic and rise in temperature," said Kuldeep Srivastava, who heads the regional meteorological center at the Indian Meteorological Department, to The Weather Channel.
However, it is important to remember that this is a temporary reprieve that will return if industry and vehicular traffic return once the lockdown is over.
As for its effect on the climate crisis, The Weather Channel reported that the World Meteorological Organization issued a statement that read: "Efforts to control the coronavirus pandemic have reduced economic activity and led to localized improvements in the air quality. But it is too early to assess the implications for concentrations of greenhouse gases, which are responsible for long-term climate change."
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A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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