Air pollution back on the rise

Maps from the European Space Agency reveal nitrogen dioxide is returning to pre-Covid levels

Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod

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Published: 17 March 2021

This Article was Written by: Katie Hill - My Green Pod

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In early 2020, data from satellites were used to show a decline in air pollution coinciding with nationwide lockdowns put in place to stop the spread of Covid-19. 

One year later, as lockdown restrictions loosen in some countries and regular activity resumes, nitrogen dioxide levels are bouncing back to pre-Covid levels.

Air pollution in lockdown

On 23 January 2020, the world saw the first coronavirus lockdown come into force in Wuhan, China in an effort to stop the spread of the illness.

This lockdown set the precedent for similar measures in other cities across the country, putting a halt to daily activities including industry and traffic.

Factories and other industries were shut down and people were confined to their homes.

Similar measures were then put in place worldwide in the following weeks and months.

As a result, a significant reduction in air pollutants across China was detected by satellites.

This included reduced emissions of nitrogen dioxide – a gas which pollutes the air mainly as a result of traffic and the combustion of fossil fuel in industrial processes.

Europe expected to follow

Now, more than one year later, as restrictions have eased, the average level of air pollutants has rebounded and is again on the rise.

The maps show the monthly average concentrations of nitrogen dioxide, derived from data from the Copernicus Sentinel-5P satellite, in the central and eastern portions of China in February 2019, February 2020 and February 2021.

The maps show the fluctuation in levels between the three periods, with dark red indicating high concentrations of nitrogen dioxide.

The data indicate that nitrogen dioxide concentrations in Beijing dropped by around 35% between February 2019 and 2020, before returning to similar levels in February 2021.

Nitrogen oxide levels in China, Feb 2019, ’20 and ’21

Image copyright: contains modified Copernicus Sentinel data (2019-21), processed by ESA, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

‘We expected air pollution to rebound as lockdowns are lifted across the globe. Nitrogen dioxide concentrations in our atmosphere do not depend on human activity alone. Weather conditions such as wind speed and cloud cover also affect those levels, however a large quantity of these reductions are due to restrictions being eased. In the coming weeks and months, we expect increases of nitrogen dioxide concentrations also over Europe.’

CLAUS ZEHNER
ESA’s Copernicus Sentinel-5P mission manager

Similarly, nitrogen dioxide levels in in Chongqing dropped by approximately 45% between February 2019 and February 2020, before returning to almost double pre-Covid numbers.

These data are thanks to the Tropomi instrument on board the Copernicus Sentinel-5P satellite – the first Copernicus mission dedicated to monitoring our atmosphere.

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