COVID-19 has changed the way we live and work, as various health and safety restrictions keep more of us at home more often. The resulting changes to our behavior are already impacting the environment around us in myriad ways, according to comparisons of remote sensing data before and during the pandemic collected by NASA, U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), and ESA (European Space Agency) Earth-observing satellites and others.
Researchers from several institutions presented their early results in a virtual press conference on Dec. 7 at the American Geophysical Union’s 2020 fall meeting. They found that the environment is quickly changing, and the timing of those changes seems to indicate that the pandemic may be a reason. Deforestation rates are changing in some places, air pollution is diminishing, water quality is improving, and snow is becoming more reflective in some areas since the pandemic began earlier this year.
“But we will need more research to clearly attribute environmental change to COVID,” said Timothy Newman, National Land Imaging Program Coordinator for the United States Geological Survey (USGS).
Scientists and engineers like Newman use remote sensing data to observe how the world is changing during the COVID-19 pandemic, comparing current remote sensing data to pre-pandemic trends. Newman’s program monitors weekly changes with satellite images from the joint NASA/USGS Landsat satellites and the ESA’s Sentinel-2 satellites.
Newman’s program observed that large swaths of the Brazilian Amazon rainforest were cleared from June to September of this year, since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Rapid deforestation also is occurring in the tropics near Indonesia and the Congo. Yet, in other parts of the Amazon rainforest such as Colombia and Peru, deforestation appears to have slowed somewhat since the onset of the pandemic.
Satellite images and data from Landsat also show a reduction in environmental pollution in this time period. Industrial activities in India, including extracting and crushing stone for construction projects, slowed or ground to a halt because of COVID-19 lockdowns. Soon after, surface air measurements and Landsat thermal infrared data showed that air pollution levels had dropped significantly. One study found that the concentration of an air pollutant called particulate matter (PM) 10 decreased around a third to a fourth of the pre-pandemic level in India.
For years, Ned Bair has been studying snow in the Indus River Basin — a network of mountain ranges and rivers near India, China, and Pakistan that supplies water for more than 300 million people.
“Once the COVID-19 lockdown started in India, I immediately thought that it would have an impact on the snowpack,” said Bair, a snow hydrologist with the University of California Santa Barbara’s Earth Research Institute.
Bair saw posts on social media about how clear the air was in Delhi and preliminary data that air quality was…