As China's coronavirus shutdowns end, air pollutants rise to traditional levels

As economic activity resumes in China following the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic, levels of the air pollutant nitrogen dioxide (NO2) are rising to traditional standards for the first time this year.

According to NASA’s Earth Observatory reports, in February of 2020 scientists using NASA and European satellites identified there was a significant reduction in NO2 over the country after COVID-19 shutdown regulations took effect.

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With the conclusion of stringent health mandates, just three months later scientists saw their anticipated rebound.

NO2 is a noxious gas emitted primarily through the burning of gasoline, coal, and diesel fuel by motor vehicles, power plants, and industrial facilities.

The maps on this page show levels of nitrogen dioxide in the troposphere (the lowest layer of the atmosphere) over China. The maps above show NO2 levels in central and eastern portions of the country from February 10–25 (during the quarantine) and April 20 to May 12 (after restrictions were lifted). (NASA)

The maps on this page show levels of nitrogen dioxide in the troposphere (the lowest layer of the atmosphere) over China. The maps above show NO2 levels in central and eastern portions of the country from February 10–25 (during the quarantine) and April 20 to May 12 (after restrictions were lifted). (NASA)

When nitrogen dioxide is closer to the Earth's surface, it can turn into ozone that decreases air quality and makes breathing conditions unhealthy. When higher in our atmosphere, NO2 can form acid rain.

Researchers at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center's Atmospheric Chemistry and Dynamics Laboratory have monitored NO2 as well as general global air quality for several decades.

Data collected by the Tropospheric Monitoring Instrument (TROPOMI) on the European Space Agency's Copernicus Sentinel-5P satellite marked notable changes in levels of nitrogen dioxide in the troposphere over China during periods during and after shutdowns.

The Ozone Monitoring Instrument (OMI) on NASA’s Aura satellite -- which provides lower spatial resolution, but a longer data record -- has made comparable measurements since the early 2000s.

Interestingly enough, past research has revealed that air pollution in China usually decreases during New Year’s celebrations and then increases slowly in the month after the celebrations are over.

Yet, during the pandemic, this increase was delayed by several weeks.

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In February and March 2020, NO2 levels over Wuhan and some other Chinese cities were well below long-term trends. By April levels bounced back, reaching the long-term norm for the season.

That said, NASA's Earth Observatory noted that increasing sunlight shortens the lifetime of the gas near the ground, and shifting weather patterns can temper NO2 to disperse without resistance from the air.

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