IDSC Deputy Director and Earth Systems Scientist Dr. Ben Kirtman recently spoke with WLRN radio regarding reduced carbon emissions. With workers and businesses around the planet suddenly shut down, scientists are getting an unexpected glimpse at a world with less carbon. NASA has already detected a drop in smog over central China, where the COVID-19 coronavirus first appeared. In the U.S., satellite imagery earlier this month also detected less of the nitrous oxide-rich smog in places like car-addicted Los Angeles. Nitrous oxide makes up about 6 percent of the planet’s greenhouse gases.
The decline in carbon, an airier gas that quickly spreads into the atmosphere in about two weeks and makes up more than 80 percent of emissions, should be better understood in two to three weeks, said Dr. Kirtman.
“We’re not seeing a signal yet, but we will for sure,” he said. “There’s just a reduction in people driving around and in the U.S., that’s the single biggest source of carbon dioxide.”
The drop over such a short time is not expected to change the overall warming the planet is undergoing. For that to happen, fossil fuel consumption would need to decline by about 10 percent worldwide and be sustained for a year, according to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, which monitors carbon emissions at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii along with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
But the data scientists collect could help show how easy it may be to reduce the planet’s carbon, Dr. Kirtman said. “Certainly working from home for four weeks or whatever is not great. But one day a week?” he said. “That’s huge.”