By Joshua Blanco
Shortly after stay-at-home orders started taking effect, a peculiar thing happened. For the first time in a while, smog-ridden cities became visible and mountain ranges shone in the distance as thick veils of pollution that once covered these areas began to lift.
Cities around the world reported up to a 60 percent decrease in particulate matter following the first three weeks of lockdown, setting record levels of clean air quality for the months in which the orders were imposed. Similarly, satellite data for regions in the US, including WNC, showed significant improvements in air quality when compared to last year.
According to Evan Couzo, assistant professor of STEM education at UNC Asheville, the air in our region was already cleaner than many other places, meaning the shutdown isn’t providing as much of a benefit to Asheville and surrounding areas. “That’s not a bad thing,” he says. “It just means we have fewer pollution sources to begin with.”
And now that we’re in the midst of a pandemic, we have even less. Air traffic and highway travel, for example, have both decreased substantially. Factory shutdowns and closures of municipal buildings also played a key role in reducing emissions. But as the world begins its gradual re-opening, the changes will undoubtedly be erased.
That said, carbon dioxide levels have remained virtually unchanged. “Carbon in the atmosphere is like a bathtub,” says Couzo. “And we’re filling the bathtub faster than the drain can reduce the carbon. All we did was dial the faucet back. If we go back to business as usual, the best we can say is we slowed climate change by an insignificant amount.”
On the other hand, nitrogen dioxide—a combustion byproduct and conventional pollutant—has dropped significantly. Jim Renfro, air quality specialist at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, says the park has seen about a million less visitors as a result of the shutdown. Considering the amount of driving those visits entail, the improvements in air quality come as no surprise. Trouble is, as soon as crowds resume traveling, air quality in the parks will bounce right back.
But the eventual return to pre-COVID levels isn’t exclusive to tourist hotspots like Asheville and the surrounding parks. “Pollution doesn’t respect borders,” says Couzo. Once emissions make their way into the atmosphere, the effects begin to spread, and things start to get dangerous. The World Health Organization reports an estimated seven million people die each year from diseases resulting from poor air quality. “We have to make sure people are healthy,” says Renfro. “That’s the most important thing. But in order to do that, we need a healthy ecosystem.”
For more information on air quality in our region, visit the Western North Carolina Regional Air Quality Agency at BuncombeCounty.org.