Silver Lining to a Global Shutdown: Better City Air Quality

Using satellite imagery, stationary sensors, and IoT air quality monitoring solutions such as the Bosch Micro-Climate Monitoring system, researchers are able to monitor air quality data from cities around the world. The real-time data provided by the sensors provides insights into the drastic—and positive--changes that have occurred from shelter-in-place restrictions during the pandemic.


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Image credit: Bosch Climo

As of late May, the COVID-19 pandemic has infected more than 5.4 million people around the globe. In response to this global health crisis, many countries have taken drastic measures to slow down the spread of the virus, including issuing stay-at-home orders that place a pause on non-essential businesses and travel.

While the pause has triggered enormous economic repercussions, the resulting drop in commuter traffic has a silver lining: improved air quality. This is especially true in population-dense urban cores that have experienced a dramatic drop in human activity in various aspects of daily life, such as transportation behavior, that previously negatively impacted atmospheric conditions.

Using IoT air sensors, mobile air quality measuring tools, and satellite imaging, researchers  across the globe have noted a positive change in air quality peaks, with the most significant changes in cities with the strictest policies for social distancing, including in Asia, Italy, and some regions of the United States. 

An international study of global carbon emissions found that daily emissions declined 17 percent between January and early April 2020, compared to average levels in 2019, and could decline anywhere between 4.4 to 8 percent by the end of the year, according to findings reported by the Nature Climate Change journal.



Analyzing the Impact of Emissions

As the existence of a pandemic occurs once in a generation or less frequently, this current era provides technologists with a unique opportunity of conducting a massive global experiment for observing and analyzing the depth of impact of human-driven emissions on air quality. Once researchers have collected enough data, their analysis can be applied by smart cities and municipalities to inform policy-driven solutions to measuring and improving air quality during and post-pandemic.

A series of maps created by Descartes Labs, a data analytics company, shows that atmospheric conditions across the United States have improved significantly during the pandemic, particularly revealed by a decrease in concentration of nitrogen dioxide. Nitrogen dioxide is a key component of smog and normally exists in alarmingly high concentrations in urban cores, such as Los Angeles and New York City.

Based on the EPA’s Air Quality Index that incorporates multiple types of air pollutants, the concentration of nitrogen dioxide and PM2.5 (fine particulate matter) was in the “moderate” category at 60 before the issuance of stay-at-home orders in Los Angeles and across the state of California. Since March 16, there has been a 20 percent improvement; the longest time period of “good” air quality in March since at least 1995, according to reports from The Washington Post.

The Effects of Air Quality on Health

Additionally, Los Angeles has experienced an approximate 30 percent decrease in concentration of fine particulate matter during the pandemic, according to results gathered by the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. This type of pollutant primarily poses a respiratory risk and can dangerously enter the bloodstream before wreaking havoc within the human body.

According to a recent study by Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, exposure to fine particulate matter increases the mortality rate of COVID-19 infections and other lethal viruses and diseases. The study results underscore the importance of continuing to maintain existing air pollution regulations to protect human health both during and after the COVID-19 crisis.

These findings also reinforce the need for governments and smart cities to utilize automated air quality monitoring solutions during this pandemic and beyond. Dozens of air pollutants individually and collectively pose a public health concern, not only for COVID-19, but for other respiratory-related conditions. In Russia, for example, a networked IoT air quality monitoring solution from Libelium provides real-time measurements of particulates known to trigger asthma attacks. The system helps protect vulnerable populations at schools, nursing homes, and hospitals in the city.

A Trio of Monitoring Technology

The solutions that facilitate short- and long-term monitoring of air quality use a variety of technologies, from pre-processed global composite satellite imaging, to stationary or light-pole mounted IoT devices, to mobile platforms that can gather and analyze real-time air quality data at a specific location, such as at a wildfire. Some working examples include:

Air quality analysis. The Climo system, developed by London-based Bosch in collaboration with Intel, enables the rapid and accurate measurement of air-quality parameters. It combines sensors and software to deliver a range of air-quality data, covering key air pollutants including: particulate matter, carbon monoxide, nitric oxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, and ozone. It also provides data from environmental parameters such as temperature, relative humidity, light, sound, pressure, and even pollen.

Another example of an air quality analyzer that provides real-time monitoring is the Libelium Air Quality Index IoT Vertical kit. It includes the Smart Environment PRO Solution, with sensors calibrated for measuring gases. For ambient monitoring, it measures gas concentration levels and the amount of PM1, PM2.5, and PM10 particles in the airspace. It allows cities and government agencies to meet international Air Quality Index (AQI) compliance values and helps cities advise the public of air quality and health risk issues occurring in real-time.

Mobile air quality monitoring. San Francisco-based tech firm Aclima has a mobile sensing platform that measures black carbon, nitrogen oxide, and nitrogen dioxide that are often correlated to respiratory health issues. Its monitoring technology entails Google Street View vehicles equipped with Aclima’s software and tools.

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