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The view from space: See how dramatically COVID-19 changed the world

A new dashboard from three space agencies shows the startling impact of the coronavirus pandemic on everything from air quality to asparagus farming.

The view from space: See how dramatically COVID-19 changed the world
[Photos: buradaki/iStock, PhonlamaiPhoto/iStock]

Step outside your door, and you can see the myriad ways that COVID-19 has changed our daily lives. But what do its effects look like at a macro level—from space?

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Three space agencies—ESA, JAXA, and NASA—have teamed up to create a new dashboard that shows the worldwide environmental effects of the pandemic, recorded from satellite observations. Here are five of them, from the serious (the airline industry has nearly slowed to a halt) to the oddball (asparagus production is way down).

[Screenshot: Earth Observing Dashboard]

Air quality is way better

You probably noticed less traffic during lockdown. That reduction, along with reduced industrial production, has led to lower levels of regional nitrogen dioxide (NO2), an air pollutant. That difference is plain as day when looking at satellite imagery that’s a year apart: Swaths of deep red indicating NO2 over Madrid, Milan, Paris, and Rome become light orange in 2020, indicating a 50% reduction in the gas.

Water quality has improved

Satellite images of San Francisco Bay show that water quality may have improved in San Francisco following its shelter in place order March 19. Using the dashboard’s comparative mapping, you can see clear changes month over month. The site says remote chlorophyll-a measurements, which indicate the levels of water nutrients and algae growth, along with on-the-ground reports from the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Program both indicate healthier waters. (One caveat: The report says lower-than-usual rainfall, high temperatures, and cloud cover could have also contributed to reduced algae levels.)

The airline industry has slowed

The coronavirus pandemic severely curtailed air travel. One way to look at that impact is the number of planes parked at airports. Composite satellite images comparing the number of parked airplanes at the Tokyo airport in November 2019, March 2020, and May 2020 show how the number of planes changed over time from many last fall to just a few getting ready for takeoff in May.

[Screenshot: Earth Observing Dashboard]

Greenhouse gas emissions are down

Reduced transportation and industrial production also meant decreased fossil fuel emissions, and that has lead to a temporary decrease in carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere. (“Initial studies suggest that although COVID-19-related CO2 emission reductions are expected to slow the speed at which CO2 accumulates in the atmosphere, they will not reduce the overall atmospheric concentration of CO2,” says the report—hence the use of the term “temporary.”) But we’ll take any silver lining we can get. Comparative maps indicate a small reduction in CO2 that corresponds with lockdowns in China, Southern Europe, and the Eastern United States. It also notes increased CO2 values in the Southern hemisphere in December 2019—likely due in part to the wildfires that tore across Australia.

Asparagus production plummeted

A summertime grilling favorite, asparagus crops are getting burned from coronavirus lockdowns. Maps show the cultivated areas of asparagus fields in Bradenburg, Germany, fell by 20%, which they attribute to a lack of seasonal workers during lockdown.

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This could point to a bigger problem. While a recent report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations shows resiliency within the food production sector, it also indicates that there have been drops in production across major food commodities, including meat, fish, and sugar. (Cereal however, has risen 2.6% year over year.)

Whether looking at parked planes or asparagus crops, it’s clear that the coronavirus pandemic has dramatically impacted industries worldwide. The Earth Observing Dashboard captures those system-level differences with stark visuals. Of course, it’s also important not to get lost in the numbers—to remember how the virus is affecting the community right outside your door.

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About the author

Lilly Smith is an associate editor of Co.Design. She was previously the editor of Design Observer, and a contributing writer to AIGA Eye on Design.

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