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NASA, ESA, JAXA to track pandemic's effects from space

NASA, ESA, JAXA to track pandemic's effects from space
Scientists use NASA and NOAA satellites to track nightlight emissions in the United States, a proxy for light and energy usage, as well as economic activity. Photo by NASA-NOAA Suomi NPP satellite

June 25 (UPI) -- An international trio of space agencies has joined forces to track and visualize the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on air and water quality, climate change, economic activity and agriculture, officials said.

For the past few months, NASA scientists have been working with researchers at the European Space Agency, ESA, and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, JAXA, to compile and organize pandemic-relevant data from Earth observation satellites.

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On Thursday, the team of scientists unveiled the COVID-19 Earth Observation Dashboard, an interactive interface featuring a combination of satellite data records and analytical tools that can be used to track the planet-wide impacts of the novel coronavirus on the environment and human society.

"Our teams are exhausted but very proud to have our work presented to a global audience," Josef Aschbacher, director of ESA Earth Observation Programs, said during a teleconference on Thursday morning.

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In the short-term, data amalgamated by the cooperating agencies can be used to better understand and combat the pandemic, but once the threat of COVID-19 has faded, researchers will be able to channel their collaborative energies toward other global issues.

"We have an obligation to offer our excellent space data to the citizens of the world," Aschbacher said. "And there are many problems on our planet that also need global concerted action."

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In the weeks following the onset of the pandemic, much attention was paid to the reduction in air pollution in places. Scientists at NASA, ESA and JAXA have been working to quantify the impacts of the pandemic -- and subsequent national and regional lock-downs -- on fossil fuel emissions.

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But while many have wondered how carbon emissions have been affected by the pandemic, scientists suggest the nature of the gas makes it quite difficult to track CO2 emissions over short time scales.

To measure changes in carbon emissions and air pollution using satellite data, climate scientists mostly rely on nitrogen dioxide.

"NO2 tracks very well with fossil fuel emissions and economic activity," said Ken Jucks, program scientist for the OCO-2 and Aura missions with NASA's Earth Science Division. "Unlike NO2, which has a lifetime of just a few hours, CO2 has a lifetime of a few centuries. That means the background concentrations for CO2 emissions are much higher and the short-term variations are much smaller."

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The newly unveiled COVID-19 Earth Observation Dashboard allows online users to view the drop in atmospheric NO2 that followed national and regional lock-downs -- first in the air above China, and later, in the atmosphere above Europe and North America.

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As the pandemic has cooled in some parts of the world and heated up in other places, like South America, NO2 signals have followed suit.

"We're actually seeing the emissions change over time, and we're seeing signals in the Southern Hemisphere now that we didn't see early on," Jucks said.

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According to scientists, the measured drop in NO2 demonstrates how quickly changes in human behavior and economic patterns can impact global emissions, but the data also showcases how much work must be done to curb climate change.

"To reach either of the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] goals set by the Paris Agreement, whether limiting warming to 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius, we're going to need to reduce our carbon emissions by 50 percent or more," Jucks said. "What we saw from COVID was emissions reductions anywhere from 5 to 30 percent over a few months, and then going back towards normal. This slowdown was just a blip. For real change, we need to figure out, as a species, how to completely alter how we operate."

Still, researchers are hopeful that the effects of the pandemic on emissions and air pollution can be used as an experiment for climate modelers -- an opportunity to improve the accuracy of climate model predictions and isolate the kinds of economic and societal changes that will have the greatest impacts on emissions and air quality.

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In addition to tracking atmospheric gases, Earth observation satellites can look at other variables affected by the pandemic.

"Several international organizations have expressed concerns that the COVID-19 pandemic might turn from a health crisis into a global food crisis," said Anca Anghelea, an open data scientist with ESA's Earth observation programs.

Anghelea is one of several researchers working to compile satellite data that can be used to measure the impacts of the pandemic on food production around the world.

Researchers hope the new dashboard and the data compiled there can do more than just help scientists understand the impacts of the pandemic. Scientists want to see their data inspire problem solving.

"When we introduced the first set of this data, the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, was using it to monitor the number of traffic jams along countries' borders," Aschbacher said during Thursday's teleconference.

"We saw how long the queues have been of trucks and cars," Aschbacher said. "This inspired policy makers to create what's called a green lane, which allowed trucks with vital goods, such as foods and medicines to move through more efficiently."

But more than just solve isolated problems, researchers at NASA, ESA and JAXA said they hoped the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic would inspire greater collaboration and cooperation across national borders -- a spirit of working together that might last beyond the current crisis.

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"On Earth, we are connected, we have truly global type of impacts from a crisis that began on another continent," said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate. "What the dashboard really does, is it really shows us this connectivity. It demonstrates how we must really come together and apply the data and work together to study this connected planet."

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