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How has COVID-19 impacted our travel and air pollution?

Greatest drop in distance traveled between March 2nd and May 1st.
Greatest drop in distance traveled between March 2nd and May 1st. (Climate Central)

You’ve probably seen the images floating around social media about how our air quality has improved while more people are staying home and social distancing.

It’s true that people are traveling less, and according to a Roadecology report, vehicle miles travelled have fallen by more than 60% from early-March to mid-April, and air travel has decreased significantly.

Descartes Labs has been collecting daily mobility data since March 1, excluding weekends, and the results have been alerting.

Scientists are using cellphone data to determine how travel has been impacted on a local level. Compared to the pre-pandemic baseline, all 50 states saw mobility drop more than half at some point.

With states starting to reopen in phases, these numbers are starting to increase again in some locations, most noticeably the Southeast and Great Plains.

Sources and solutions to transportation pollution.
Sources and solutions to transportation pollution. (Climate Central)

Believe it or not, transportation accounts for 28% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, which can greatly impact air quality. This releases a group of smog-forming pollutants led by nitrogen dioxide (NO2), which can have an effect on those with breathing problems, asthma and other respiratory problems.

With travel decreased across the Southeast, the NO2 levels have fallen roughly 40%.

March 15- April 15 2015-2019 Average
March 15- April 15 2015-2019 Average (NASA)
March 15 - April 15 2020 Average
March 15 - April 15 2020 Average (NASA)

Although these lower NO2 levels won’t last forever, it was a nice break. With summer right around the corner, our Florida heat and sunshine will lead to more stagnant air and ground level ozone formation.

Let this be a reminder going forward how lower emissions can positively impact our health.


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