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13 WTHR Indianapolis | Indianapolis Local News & Weather

Social distancing is clearing the air

Social distancing has turned society upside down overnight, but almost as quickly, it has led to some big changes in the air we breathe.

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WGRZ) — There’s no doubt that there have been a lot of downsides to social distancing and self-quarantining.

The effects range from boredom to ruined livelihoods. Being asked and, in some cases, forced to stay home for long periods of time has radically changed the way society is operating.

It’s also radically changing the makeup of the lower part of the atmosphere. With minimal work commuting, dining out and gathering in general, people aren’t traveling. Without cars on the roads and far fewer planes taking off, pollution levels have dropped significantly, especially in major cities where pollution is frequently an issue.

The most notable change is in the level of atmospheric nitrogen dioxide, or NO2. It’s the main chemical in smog, and 99 percent of it comes from the exhaust pipes of vehicles and other fossil fuel burning activities.

Satellites from the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA have detected up to a 50 percent drop in the amount of the gas in places like Wuhan, China, and northern Italy in recent weeks.

The concern is that once “regular” life resumes, pollution levels will return to their original state. That is, unless we learn some environmental lessons from this experience and use them to enact some more livable environmental protections going forward.