How coronavirus effects the environment and vice versa -NASA studies

Among the researchers' projects are two that are currently exploring how the environment is impacting the spread of coronavirus by monitoring dust and weather, while six others explore the reverse.

A protective face mask is seen as curbs to fight the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) have been reimposed after a rise in new cases, at Zikim beach in southern Israel July 21, 2020. Picture taken July 21, 2020. (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
A protective face mask is seen as curbs to fight the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) have been reimposed after a rise in new cases, at Zikim beach in southern Israel July 21, 2020. Picture taken July 21, 2020.
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
Among some of the most asked questions during global coronavirus containment efforts was "how have lockdowns affected the environment?" Now, eight researchers have been awarded rapid-turnaround project grants to find out the answer to not only this question, but also how the environment has in turn impacted the spread of the virus, according to the NASA website.
Among the researchers' projects are two that are currently exploring how the environment is impacting the spread of coronavirus by monitoring dust and weather. In addition, the remaining six are exploring the reverse effect, by looking to satellite images to help reveal how lockdown measures are impacting the environment.
Topics including food security, fire ecology, urban surface heat, clouds and warming, air pollution and precipitation, and water quality and aquatic ecosystems, according the NASA website.
NASA’s Earth Science Division manages these projects that find new ways to use Earth observing data to better understand regional-to-global environmental, economic and societal impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Satellites are especially useful during the coronavirus outbreak, as research can still utilize images while sitting at home. “Satellites collect data all the time and don’t require us to go out anywhere,” Hannah Kerner, an assistant research professor at the University of Maryland in College Park, said.
Kerner's project is currently monitoring the way the pandemic affected agriculture and crop growth during the pandemic, specifically key commodity crops, soybeans and corn in the US and winter wheat in Russia.
“We’re using satellite data and machine learning to map where and which crops are growing,” Kerner said.
According to data collected by Kerner's project, the pandemic affected crops in two ways. Lockdown policies made it harder for Department of Agriculture (USDA) to travel to farms and collect information about crop planting, progress, and conditions. In addition, reduced air and ground travel caused the demand for ethanol to plummet, which caused corn prices to decline.
Currently, perhaps the most relevant study is the one that focuses on how the pandemic affected fire control during the lockdown, as thousands of acres of California's land have been lost to wildfires.
Understanding how COVID-19 policies has affected both the wildfires in the western areas of the US and the prescribed burns in the East Coast, is Ben Poulter, a research scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, by using the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on NASA and NOAA’s Suomi NPP satellite, as well as data from MODIS, to track fire.
Notably, during the lockdown the US Forest Service temporarily suspended all of its intentional, or prescribed, burns on federal lands in the Southeast in March, and state agencies in Mississippi, South Carolina, and North Carolina followed suit.
Ultimately his team is seeking to understand is how fewer fires in the Southeast could be affecting biodiversity, since some species rely on fires to thrive, and causing fuels to accumulate in vegetation, potentially leading to more dangerous wildfires in the future.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, they're examining how COVID-19 policies are complicating fire suppression.
"It may become more difficult to light fires in the Western states," he said, referring to the social distancing practices introduced by firefighting agencies to minimize the spread of the virus, such as eliminating large camps of firefighters living in close quarters.
On a similar note, one study, by Gabriele Villarini, a professor at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, and Wei Zhang, a scientist in the same institute,  is seeking to understand how less pollution could mean less rain.
Moisture in the atmosphere condenses around aerosols, or particles like dust, and falls to Earth as rain and snow. Fewer aerosols during the pandemic may have been responsible for the reduced precipitation in February and March 2020 across the western US., with areas receiving less than 50% compared to a typical year.
“This project will help us understand how COVID-19 is impacting the natural environment,” Villarini said.
Understanding how the change in transportation is affecting global temperatures are two different studies.
One, led by Christopher Potter, a research scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California's Silicon Valley, is seeking to understand how the reduction of cars on the road and in parking lots has caused heat on surfaces, such as parking lots and roads to be absorbed differently in addition to changes in the way the sun is usually reflected.
Visible light from the sun hits the surface and then is absorbed and reradiated as heat – a process called thermal heat flux. Even shiny car windows may be enough to reflect sunlight, Potter said.
The second study is seeking to validate the theory that fewer flights could mean cooler skies. This is due to the fact that man-made clouds, or contrails produced by aircraft engine exhaust or changes in air pressure.
William Smith and Dave Duda, researchers at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, have been studying contrails for a couple of decades. “Contrails are one of the few clouds we produce ourselves,” Duda said. Although their effects vary and are difficult to quantify, their overall net effect is warming.
Last, but not least of the studies regarding how the coronavirus impacted the environment, is one researching how the coronavirus and the resulting decrease in tourism and urban pollution has impacted one of the most diverse marine ecosystems in the Atlantic.
Robert Griffin, a professor at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, was working on a NASA project to study the reef’s health when COVID-19 happened. “The pandemic created a natural experiment,” Griffin said, to better understand how urban pollutants affect water quality and coral reef health.
With this greater understanding, Griffin hopes to lead to new guidelines on how to develop new means of protecting these delicate biomes from pollution and human footprint in the future.
Meanwhile, NASA studies have also revealed how the coronavirus pandemic could be affected by the environment itself. One such study, led by Prof. Pablo Méndez-Lázaro of the University of Puerto Rico in San Juan, sought to see if African dust storms, which travels across the Atlantic into the Caribbean from the Sahara Desert every year, could significantly impact the health and mortality from coronavirus.
The African dust, which arrives every year in the Caribbean between May and August, often contains microorganisms, which can be linked to contagious diseases.
The team is currently using a variety of methods to scan the aerosols in the dust clouds, and is attempting to gather data on anyone who contracted respiratory diseases through the dust.
“We believe that there could be an exacerbation of COVID-19 patients in the Caribbean during African dust events,” Méndez-Lázaro explained.
Another study seeks to study environmental factors that could impact a second wave of coronavirus cases.
This study, led by the University of Texas at Dallas's Prof. Yulia R. Gel and NASA scientist Huikyo Lee, is focusing on surface air temperature and humidity, and whether they can impact transmission.
Gel's team is using a variety of tools to understand virus spread, weather data and aerosols to gain a more complete picture of COVID-19 transmission and mortality rate over space and time by analyzing numerous factors, such as environmental ones. The goal of Gel's research is to eventually create a tool to predict the progression of COVID-19 on a seasonal basis on both a regional and global level, while at the same time quantifying associated uncertainties.