The coronavirus creates the conditions for a unique “world experiment” in environmental sciences


By Mikayla Mace, University of Arizona

April 22, 2020

Stay-at-home orders enacted to slow human travel, and therefore the spread of COVID-19, have had clear benefits for the environment, but they are also impacting environmental science. Researchers are rushing to collect atmospheric and other data, which they can use to assess their climate models and determine the extent of the impact of the coronavirus on the environment and human health in terms of pollution and quality. air.

Joellen Russell

Joellen Russell

“There is a global experiment going on in our atmosphere,” said Joellen Russellprofessor in the Department of Geosciences at the University of Arizona.

But before researchers can confidently determine how and why greenhouse gas emissions are changing due to the social and economic impacts of COVID-19, they likely need months of monitoring, said Riley Duren, researcher at the Research, Innovation and Impact Department. Indeed, several types of measurements and sophisticated computer models are needed to untangle the effects of a highly variable atmosphere and the complex interactions between human and natural processes that govern the emission and removal of atmospheric gases.

“In the United States, most atmospheric measurements come from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration,” said Russell, who also serves as chair of NOAA’s Science Advisory Board Climate Task Force. The council recently asked NOAA to aggregate greenhouse gas measurements with other entities and also work with health agencies to assess whether there are human health implications.

Riley Duren

Riley Duren

Duren is co-founder of the interagency Megacities Carbon Project in Los Angeles, part of a global network of urban pilot projects that tracks greenhouse gas emissions across geographic scales and economic sectors to support climate change mitigation efforts.

All greenhouse gas emissions — which are a combination of human and natural activities — are rapidly mixed into the atmosphere after release, Duren said. Carbon dioxide and methane, two of the most potent gases that contribute to global warming, are not very reactive and persist in the atmosphere, making it difficult to disentangle new gases from what have been around for decades.

“Imagine a street where several houses have leaks from the sprinkler system and you measure the water in a storm drain downstream, trying to figure out who has the biggest leak. This is going to be difficult unless you have a way to trace the source,” Duren said. . “The scientific opportunity here is that there are important and well-known changes in human activity right now. This provides a known input to better unravel what is contributing to gases in the atmosphere.”

“The stay-at-home orders and other consequences of COVID-19 presented us with a unique opportunity,” said Elizabeth “Betsy” Cantwell, UArizona’s senior vice president for research and innovation. “Our scientists are leveraging this to create critical new knowledge about the complex systems driving change in our global climate.”

What makes this complex is that changes in emissions vary across many sectors of the economy, some of which are easily predictable and others less so.

“Basically, for anything related to transportation, you see a huge decrease in carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and other pollutants,” Duren said. “There are fewer cars on the road and fewer thefts.”

Methane emissions in most cities, however, are not expected to change much as people confined to their homes still produce waste, which goes to landfills – a major source of methane.

“There could be some subtle changes in landfill methane emissions due to more food waste coming from homes than restaurants, but the net should be about the same,” Duren said.

On the other hand, methane emissions from oil and natural gas production in response to global market forces could be a “mixed bag”, he said. For example, producers in some regions may have financial and regulatory incentives to shut down and shut down oil and natural gas wells, while in others they may continue or even increase the venting and flaring of excess gas. .

Depending on the baseline situation due to local economy, infrastructure, laws and regulations or geology, emissions will vary, and it will likely take months of careful observation in areas that have the experimental measurement systems needed to eliminate them, Duren said. A bigger problem is that most countries do not have greenhouse gas monitoring systems capable of offering rapid or localized assessments.

“Unlike pollution monitoring, operational greenhouse gas monitoring systems are not yet a priority, with a few exceptions like California and a few countries in Europe,” he said. “It is important to understand how the environment reacts to human activity during the pandemic or even under ‘normal’ conditions, because once this is behind us, we will still have to deal with climate change. This is not right. disappear, and neither do the current environmental shortcomings.” data unless we rethink the priorities. What scientists and engineers can do is bring new technologies and methods. But, ultimately, it is up to policy makers to implement the necessary change.

Understanding the sources of emissions is necessary for countries that budget their carbon emissions, but they too cannot do so without better and more reliable measurement systems.

“It’s the tragedy of the commons,” Russell said. “If no one keeps track of who is grazing and how many sheep they have, then anyone can graze as many sheep as they want. Eventually the grass dies, the sheep have nothing to eat, and the farmers are left with nothing.

More immediately, tracking emissions can help environmental scientists and health officials understand the relationship between pollution and exacerbation of COVID-19 symptoms, according to Russell.

COVID-19 mainly affects the lungs and “it has been established by doctors in places with high pollution that they see more severe cases, in the same way that people with asthma have more difficulty. It is a Interesting problem and more metrics would help. There are metrics by state and by city, but we’re trying to turn on the NOAA part and make the data public immediately.”

Duren sees two major lessons: “We could gain a new understanding of monitoring processes that could lead to longer-term emission reduction opportunities. It could also expose both the capabilities and limitations of current experimental monitoring capabilities. and knowledge of the environmental situation in general.”


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