2020 News & Events

NOAA exploring impact of COVID-19 response on the environment

6 May 2020
adapted from the story by NOAA Communications

Manhattan aerial
Clear skies over Manhattan greeted scientists from NOAA and the University of Maryland during a research flight aboard an instrumented Cessna 402 owned and operated by the University Research Foundation on 2 May 2020. Air samples collected during the flight, part of the East Coast Outflow 2 experiment, will be analyzed as part of NOAA's research into the air quality impact of New York's coronavirus response. Photo: Xinrong Ren, NOAA ARL

DSRC inlets
These inlets (left) pull outside air into the Chemical Science Laboratory at NOAA's David Skaggs Research Center in Boulder, Colorado, where it is analyzed for dozens of different gases in real-time, around the clock during COVID-AQS 2020. Photo: Jessica Gilman, NOAA

GCMS lab
This gas-chromatograph mass-spectrometer, a state-of-the-art analytical instrument, is running 24 hours a day, seven days a week at the NOAA Chemical Sciences Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado. These state-of-the-art instruments measure dozens of different gases in real-time, around the clock, managed remotely by NOAA scientists. These measurements will be important in understanding how the chemical composition of the air has changed from reduced human activities and the related impacts on local air quality. Photo: Jessica Gilman, NOAA

pilot in cockpit
Paolo Wilczak, a pilot with Scientific Aviation, flies an air sampling mission over Groton, Connecticut, as part of the East Coast Outflow experiment on 25 April 2020. Photo: Paulo Wilczak, Scientific Aviation

The coronavirus pandemic response has reduced pollution from a large number of sources across many geographic regions. NOAA has launched a wide-ranging research effort to investigate the impact of reduced vehicle traffic, air travel, shipping, manufacturing and other activities on Earth's atmosphere and oceans.

NOAA scientists are using the most advanced atmosphere-ocean models to look for changes in atmospheric composition, weather, climate, and precipitation over weeks to months. This research will provide important evaluations to improve weather forecasting and climate projections going forward.

"This unique view into the relative stillness we find ourselves in is only possible because of the existing baseline knowledge that NOAA has built over decades of monitoring, modeling and research," said Craig McLean, assistant NOAA administrator for Oceanic and Atmospheric Research. "This research is providing new insight into the drivers of change for our oceans, atmosphere, air quality, and weather. Our past work has prepared us to investigate these unprecedented times."

NOAA scientists are investigating the impact of decreased pollution in specific areas over the short term, and will analyze samples collected from its global sampling network of contract airplanes, towers and ground sites at its laboratory in Boulder, Colorado. In the oceans, NOAA scientists will be assessing impacts of reduced underwater noise levels on marine life.

Some of the new research efforts:

  • Several NOAA research laboratories, including those focused on satellite data, are evaluating how changes in activity impact emissions like carbon dioxide, methane, aerosols, and common air pollutants. In College Park, Maryland, atmospheric researchers have found slight decreases in fine particulate pollution in the eastern and western United States, and a stronger signal of declines in ground-level ozone, or smog. In Boulder, Colorado, scientists are observing changes in the composition and timing of emissions, in addition to volume – due to a smaller, later "rush hour" – that could have local air quality impacts.
  • NOAA's global greenhouse gas monitoring network, which continues to capture almost all of its normal long-term observations, has begun aerial sampling over several large East Coast cities that have been previously studied.
  • Scientists are also watching the sky, to see if reduced airline traffic is reducing the amount of high cirrus clouds, and whether that is affecting the formation of lower-altitude clouds or the amount of solar energy reaching the surface.
  • NOAA satellite scientists in College Park, Maryland, are working closely with research labs to share data from space-based instruments of rapidly changing air quality conditions on the ground, and to study the changing relationships between and among different types of pollutants, which will lead to improved air quality forecasts.

NOAA is coordinating with the broader environmental science community on this work, including partners in the interagency and academic communities. Observations and findings generated by this research effort will be archived by NOAA's National Center for Environmental Information (NCEI) for use by other researchers.

All research activity will be conducted under Department of Commerce and Centers for Disease Control guidance which put the health and safety of scientists, employees and contractors foremost, while continuing to meet NOAA's essential mission needs.