Cloud Thumbnail Swoosh

What Can an Atmospheric Perspective Teach Us About COVID-19?

Emily Fischer

Emily Fischer, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Department of Atmospheric Science at Colorado State University. She is also the director of the Fischer research group, and an executive council member with the School of Global Environmental Sustainability.

*Answers have been edited for clarity and length, and include contributions from Fischer Group Ph.D. student and SoGES Sustainability Leadership Fellow, Jakob Lindaas.

Q: How has social distancing changed the Fischer Group’s operations?

Fischer: Our group normally works in the office, and so have been adjusting to working remotely. We have successfully been working together using GoToMeeting. When the internet slows down, we just move to our cell phones and keep on plugging away. We’ve created more shared documents to keep us all moving along. My group did not have a major field campaign planned this summer, and that is a relief. We have plenty of data from other prior efforts, and we are spending our time working to understand these measurements and complete publications. I’ve personally been trying to figure out the right amount of times that I should personally check in with my group. My main challenge is to work effectively while also helping two young children work through their school work. 

Q: How does the COVID-19 situation relate to air quality or other areas of your expertise?

Fischer: The coronavirus has had major implications on atmospheric composition. My group is not specifically working on this, but we have been keeping up with this news! Less traffic in some big cities results in better air quality, which you can measure from space. A couple of interesting articles that talk about this are “Traffic and Pollution Plummet as U.S. Cities Shut Down for Coronavirus” from The New York Times and “Coronavirus pandemic leading to huge drop in air pollution” from The Guardian. These articles cite analyses that show yearly differences in NO2 levels, which is a pollutant that comes from things like car engines and power plants and can exacerbate respiratory illnesses.

I should also note that I’ve seen critiques of this type of analysis. One critique comes from the Copernicus program in the European Union, whose Sentinel 5P satellite data are most widely used in these articles. Some ‘quick-look’ analyses are disregarding important data quality information, such as if there are clouds between the satellite and the part of the earth it is measuring. Too many clouds can make the satellite observation more uncertain. So, while the articles are likely correct in reporting improvements to air quality, it will take a bit more time before careful analyses of this satellite data can tell us exactly how much it has improved.

I teach a class on how to use satellites to understand atmospheric composition so it has been neat to see my students pick up on this issue. The articles also note that one needs to compare averages over 3-4 weeks or more between different years, because weather patterns like storms can blow air pollution out of an area, for example. Human traffic patterns (more truck and rush-hour traffic on weekdays, less on weekends) can also change daily pollution levels. Averaging over a 3-4 week timeframe before comparing between years “smooths out” the day-to-day variation from these weather and human-driven factors. 

It’s also always important to note that any effects from the coronavirus on air quality are expected to be temporary. Once people start moving around again and/or the full economy restarts, pollutant emissions are likely to go back to previous levels. This natural experiment may let people all across the world see that improved air quality and health are possible through decreased pollutant emissions in a post COVID-19 world! And along with lower air pollutant emissions, we are likely producing fewer greenhouse gas emissions. However, they are likely to go back up when the economy restarts again as well.

COVID-19 is affecting different groups in a variety of ways. Does air quality play into that?

There are lots of ways the coronavirus will disparately affect socioeconomically disadvantaged populations, some of which are related to air quality. For example, disadvantaged populations often live in areas with worse outdoor air quality, leading to higher incidence of air quality-related morbidity, which puts them at higher risks for more severe COVID-19 symptoms. 

Indoor air quality in your home will become an even larger factor for people as they spend most or all day inside the same building for weeks-months. My assumption is that socioeconomically disadvantaged populations may live in residences with more indoor air quality issues (mold, radon, particles from cooking, etc.).

Also, no, ozone generators will not kill the coronavirus inside your home!

Q: What else have you been working on?

Fischer: My group has also been working to understand critical aspects of smoke composition that are relevant to air quality, visibility, and nutrient cycles.

We’ve also been working on understanding how the frequency of wildfires will respond to climate change. It’s interesting to realize that Coronavirus may affect our wildfire and wildfire smoke season in the western U.S. For example, it will be hard to maintain social distance when fighting wildfires and coordinating wildfire responses. There’s also the fact that our government’s ability (local, state, and federal levels) to respond to fires will be suppressed by time and resources needed by the COVID-19 response. 

What has been (or do you foresee) as being the biggest challenge in continuing your research while CSU is operating remotely?

In the short term while CSU is operating remotely, it is hard to collect new lab or field data. And in the longer term, it seems likely that the coronavirus pandemic will significantly impact all atmospheric chemistry field projects and even routine air quality monitoring for the next 1-2 years. 

Do you have any success stories so far during this new way of living/working?

There have been a number of formerly in person meetings that have gone virtual and opened participation to anyone across the world. Several of my students presented at the fully-virtual International Smoke Symposium 3 in April. That’s kind of neat.

Share this post

Share on facebook
Share on google
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest
Share on print
Share on email