Earth’s Atmosphere Reacted To The Pandemic, But Not How You’d Expect

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OCO2 in space
OCO-2 Observatory Satellite In Orbit | Photo by jpl.nasa.gov

I previously wrote about the fact that due to the pandemic much smaller amounts of carbon emissions were entering our atmosphere mainly due to the near shutdown of airline travel and the fact that so many people were not driving their cars to work every day.

Josh Laughner
Joshua Laughner, Postdoctoral Fellow at Caltech | Photo by Caltech

A November 9, 2021 article written by Carol Rasmussen NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and titled “Emission Reductions From Pandemic Had Unexpected Effects on Atmosphere” describes the comprehensive study. Quoting Joshua Laughner, postdoctoral fellow at Caltech and lead author of this new study “We’re past the point where we can think of these as two separate problems. To understand what is driving changes to the atmosphere, we must consider how air quality and climate influence each other.”

David Schimel
David Schimel, Head Of JPL Carbon Group | Photo by Finanacial Planning

Scientists from 20 U.S. and international universities, federal and state agencies, and laboratories developed four components of the atmosphere to use in this study. Carbon dioxide and methane which are the two most important greenhouse gasses and two particular air pollutants nitrogen oxides and microscopic nitrate particles. Referring to the surprising results the article it quotes the head of JPL’s carbon group David Schimel, who was a co-author of the study, as saying “During previous socioeconomic disruptions, like the 1973 oil shortage, you could immediately see a change in the growth rate of CO2. We all expected to see it this time too.”

Orbiting Carbon Observatory Final Assembly And Testing | Photo by jpl.nasa.gov

To obtain the atmospheric data necessary to study this complex issue the carbon group used Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2. The observatory takes sophisticated readings of the studied gasses for detailed analysis back on earth.

Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 As Seen From The International Space Station | Photo by jpl.nasa.gov

The satellite package was launched into Earth orbit July 2, 2014 on a Delta-2 7320-10C vehicle from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and has been collecting data ever since.

A Review Of The Carbon Cycle | Image by nasa.gov

Before detailing the most recent atmospheric data a review of the Carbon Cycle is in order. We were taught this in school, but for most of us that was many years ago. The COVID-19 pandemic resultant shutdowns did cause a drop in emissions of 5.4 percent, but serious reduction in nitrogen oxides (NOx) which caused a global reduction in ozone which is a bad at the surface, but necessary in the higher atmosphere. The growth of NOx in atmospheric concentrations didn’t drop and remained within the normal range that fluctuates from year-to-year naturally. They also found that the ocean didn’t absorb as much CO2 from the atmosphere as it had done in the last few years. Reasoning is that the reduced CO2 pressure at the surface of the ocean was responsible for the rapid response.

Nitrogen Oxide, Nitrogen Dioxide, Nitrous Oxide | Image by sviindustrial

Cutting back on the NOx emissions still sounds like a good thing, but it also affected the atmosphere’s ability to cleanse itself of methane which traps heat in the atmosphere even better than CO2 can. One study estimated that the pandemic reduced methane emissions by ten percent, but the accuracy of the data is suspect due to many things including poor maintenance of the infrastructure of oil fields that can produce methane. The result is that methane concentrations actually increased by 0.3 percent in the past year which is a faster rate than at any period in this decade.

As shown in this research there were some immediate benefits of the pandemic shutdowns, but they were short lived once the restrictions began to be lifted.To sum up the results of this research project here’s a quote from the paper they published “This suggests that reducing activity in in these industrial and residential sectors is not practical in the short term. Reducing these sectors’ emissions permanently will require their transition to low-carbon-emitting technology.”

It would seem we are still stuck with trying to find economical and practical ways to shift away from our current means of energy production that our politicians can finally agree upon. Good luck with that.

Let me know what you would like me to talk about or explain. You can comment below or email me at: [email protected].

Tim Chuey is a Member of the American Meteorological Society and the National Weather Association and has been Awarded Seals of Approval for television weathercasting from both organizations.

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