Florida’s sky is cleanest it’s been in years amid COVID-19 pandemic

NASA images show decrease in air pollutants over Florida

The sunset above the Indian River in Merritt Island. (Image credit: John Speck) (WKMG 2020)

The coronavirus pandemic has been a historically devastating event, with many falling ill to the disease, COVID-19 deaths and millions losing their livelihoods as a result of the respiratory illness, however, there has been an inadvertently positive effect on the environment due to the pandemic: the sky is much cleaner than before the outbreak.

Jenna Stevens is the State Director of Environment Florida and while she says the means may not justify the end, cleaner air is good news for Floridians.

“During the past month we have seen both in Florida and across the nation cleaner air,” Stevens said. “This is not the way anyone would ever hope or want cleaner air to come about but the elimination of most non-essential travel has meant that one of the largest sources of air pollution, transportation emissions, has been reduced as well. This has resulted in cleaner skies.”

News 6 meteorologist Jonathan Kegges said there is scientific evidence backing up the clear, blue sky above your head, too.

“It’s no secret that there have been less people out, less cars on the road and less-pollution causing activities over the last six weeks or so,” Kegges said. “The drop in pollution directly related to the COVID-19 pandemic has been significant world wide, but also here in the sunshine state. NASA released images from its Aura Ozone Monitoring Instrument showing a sharp decrease in Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2)."

Cleaner air due to COVID-19 (Copyright 2020 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

“The image to the left shows the average nitrogen dioxide from March 15 to April 15 over Florida from the past five years. The darker the color, the more nitrogen dioxide, pollution, is present,” Kegges said. “The image to the right shows nitrogen dioxide over Florida from March 15 to April 15 of this year. The colors are much lighter, indicating lower amounts of nitrogen dioxide.”

Kegges added that for the Orlando area alone, data indicates a drop in nitrogen dioxide of 30 to 35%.

And while the weather likely plays a role from year to year and with record heat and dry conditions in 2020, NASA scientists say more analysis will have to be done to more accurately measure the change.

“[Nitrogen dioxide] primarily gets in the air by the burning of fuel. Cars and power plants are the main sources for nitrogen dioxide. Those sources also contribute to carbon dioxide, one of the greenhouse gasses that aides in warming the planet,” Kegges said. “Nitrogen dioxide can cause major respiratory issues if breathed in high concentrations. Nitrogen dioxide also mixes in with water and other chemicals to produce acid rain. This also goes into producing the iconic haze often seen over L.A. or China.”

Stevens said she believes some of the positive effects scientists are seeing on the environment can be sustained even while people begin to venture out of their homes as the country begins to reopen little-by-little.

“Our nation’s first priorities during the COVID-19 crisis must be to prevent the spread of the disease, heal the sick, and provide help to those who are suffering financially. But the situation pre-COVID was not sustainable,” Stevens said. “Air pollution, climate emissions, congestion -- these are all things we should be eager to leave behind. Once we move forward and begin to emerge from this crisis there are many things we as a community can do to have clearer skies and healthier lives. This includes making our streets safer and more accessible for walking and biking, expanding access to public transit, going electric, and investing in clean transportation.”

About the Author:

Erin began her career at News 6 as an assignment editor, then became a show producer. She is now a digital storyteller as part of the Click Orlando team.