Researcher: Clues emerge about environmental impacts of COVID-19 slowdowns

Brian Magi
Wednesday, April 22, 2020

On Earth Day 2020, scientists and citizens are thinking about how slowdowns from COVID-19 might be helping the environment.

Among those exploring this issue is UNC Charlotte atmospheric scientist Brian Magi, who is part of a local and global network of researchers who consider air quality and climate.

“Every incremental reduction in air pollution has the potential to save lives because air pollution is directly connected to increased health risks at the population scale,” said Magi, a professor in the Department of Geography & Earth Sciences.

 “How many lives are saved is still to be determined because we haven't figured out how much of a reduction in air pollution there is and will be from COVID-19,” he said. “We also have to be careful not to confound the very real and often rapid decline to death associated with COVID-19 with the often slow, long-term increased risk in factors that lead to death from increased air pollution.”

 Locally, observers are seeing hints of changes in air quality that may be a result of less activity, but it's still too soon to say definitively, he said.

“Air pollution arises from many sources, and vehicle miles travelled is a big one,” said Magi. “With people driving less, this could be a reasonable hypothesis to explore, but then you have to remember that we still have commerce and transport happening even though there is a stay-at-home mandate.”

 Large trucks are moving to keep grocery stores and distribution centers stocked, and power plants and many businesses are still operating. Furthermore, the biggest controlling factor on air quality is often the weather.

“A rainy month can create great air quality,” Magi said. “Windy days can also clear out pollution from local sources.  Our county has had a good month in March for air quality, but we still need to put that next to past time periods and next to the weather we experienced in Mecklenburg.”

Charlotte-based Clean Air Carolina has placed a network of air pollution sensors around North Carolina, working with air quality scientists like Magi.

“I certainly will be studying the data that emerges from our air pollution sensors,” he said.

Because Mecklenburg County air quality is quite good, measurable and sustained changes might be challenging to document, according to Magi.

“I think there is a better chance of detecting a change in air quality in more polluted parts of the world that are responding similarly to COVID-19, such as megacities in China and India,” he stated.  

While data collection and analysis still are emerging, other lessons already are clear. One important lesson is that communities can mobilize quickly when faced with a crisis, Magi said.

“Another big lesson is that scientific expertise matters when we face a crisis,” he stated. “Americans respect expert opinion, and we are the country we are because of how much time and effort we have invested in all levels of education from kindergarten through college, and in supporting fundamental research.”