Story at a glance

  • Nitrogen dioxide is emitted primarily by car and truck emissions, as well as electricity production.
  • Similar drops have been observed in other major metropolitan areas.
  • Scientists warn, however, pollution levels will likely rebound once restrictions are lifted.

Air pollution over major metropolitan areas of the Northeastern United States has dropped significantly as the COVID-19 outbreak has prompted widespread stay-at-home orders to curb the spread of the coronavirus. 

Satellite data from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center show levels of nitrogen dioxide air pollution fell by 30 percent in March when compared with the average concentration recorded in March from 2015 through 2019. 


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NASA says last month shows the lowest monthly atmospheric nitrogen dioxide levels of any March since its Ozone Monitoring Instrument (OMI) data record started in 2005. Nitrogen dioxide is primarily emitted from burning fossil fuels for transportation and electricity generation, and NASA says it can be used as an indicator of changes in human activity. 

NASA said nitrogen dioxide levels in March 2020 are lower across the region of the I-95 corridor from Washington, D.C., to Boston. The agency says further analysis is needed to quantify the changes in emissions versus natural variations in weather. 

As lockdown measures have brought the U.S. to a near standstill, major polluting cities such as Seattle, Los Angeles, Atlanta, New York and Chicago are experiencing declines in nitrogen dioxide, according to preliminary data from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-5P reported by CNBC.


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Smog levels in China were also reduced after factories shuttered during the outbreak there, and satellite images showed a significant drop in nitrogen dioxide during Italy’s lockdown over COVID-19. 

More recently, people in Punjab, India, said they’re seeing parts of the Himalayas clearly for the first time in decades as the country’s government has linked its coronavirus lockdown to a recent improvement in air quality. 

But scientists warn against celebrating the short-term benefits of air pollution drops as a result of lockdowns caused by the outbreak, since pollution levels are likely to rebound once restrictions are lifted.


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Published on Apr 10, 2020