China's Air Pollution Rates Plummet After Coronavirus Lockdown

The graphic above maps the density of nitrogen dioxide concentrations (the noxious gas released by cars and industries that’s known to cause health problems) across China before and after coronavirus quarantines went into effect. (Graphic: NASA)

Y-....yay? I guess?

Satellites operated by NASA and the European Space Agency have seen “significant decreases” in toxic nitrogen dioxide over China that are “at least partly related to the economic slowdown following the outbreak of coronavirus,” according to a press release NASA issued this weekend. Nitrogen dioxide is the gas the bellows out of cars, factories, and power plants and is known to cause respiratory problems and other negative health effects.

Because, yes, in case you hadn’t already heard, China’s air pollution problem really is so bad that you can see it from space. Scientists have previously called its capital city, Beijing, “uninhabitable for human beings” due to poor air quality, and China’s usual blanket of smog—a byproduct of burning extensive amounts of fuel and coal—is so thick and pervasive that it dulls sunsets and kills thousands of people each year.

Graphic: NASA

NASA scientists said the drop-off first became apparent over Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak, but it has since spread to other areas of the country. Before-and-after satellite images show how nitrogen dioxide level dropped precipitously last month compared to early January, before millions of people were put on lockdown.

“This is the first time I have seen such a dramatic drop-off over such a wide area for a specific event,” Fei Liu, an air quality researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre, said in a statement.

Given that many Chinese businesses close for Lunar New Year celebrations, scientists typically see pollution in the country taper off around this time of year. However, this year’s rates rank between 10 and 30 per cent lower than average when compared to similar measurements taken between 2005 and 2019.

“This year, the reduction rate is more significant than in past years and it has lasted longer,” Liu continued. “I am not surprised because many cities nationwide have taken measures to minimise spread of the virus.”

Graphic: NASA

While news that a country has reduced its pollution rates is usually something to celebrate, this definitely feels like a mixed bag. A silver-ish lining in an ongoing shit storm, if you will.

To date, the coronavirus outbreak has spread to 58 countries with nearly 90,000 cases recorded. The respiratory illness has been responsible for more than 2,800 deaths in China and an additional 104 worldwide, including one in America—the country’s first—recorded earlier this weekend.

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