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  • Tim McGill

Coronavirus & Climate Connection

You may have missed it among all the pandemic news that has rightly been grabbing our attention lately but there was some big news about our climate earlier in the week. This past March was earth's second warmest on record going back to 1880 according to NOAA's National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) and NASA. March 2020 tied with both February 2020 and December 2015 for the third highest monthly temperature departure from average coming in at 1.16°C (2.09°F) above the 20th century average. It was the 423rd consecutive month with temperatures above the 20th century average. That means anybody 35 years old or less has never lived on this planet when there was a month with global (both land and ocean) temperatures below the 20th century average.

Global Temperature Anomalies Since 1880
Global Temperature Anomalies Since 1880

National Centers for Environmental Information's annual temperature outlook gives this year a 99.94% chance of ranking among the five warmest on record and a 70% chance of being the warmest on record. Jeff Masters of Scientific American notes that "both February and March 2020 were tied for being the third warmest months on record--without the boost of an El Niño event and during the minimum of one of the weakest 11-year solar cycles in the past century--speaks to the dominant role human-caused global warming has in heating our planet."

Just like the tragedy of 9/11 provided an opportunity to study the atmosphere in way that that wasn't possible until the event, the pandemic has opened up a window of opportunity to again study our climate in a way that really wasn't possible before. Nearly all aviation ceased in the aftermath of 2001's tragic events. Scientists at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater were into their 15th year of a study on the effects of vapor trails or contrails left by aircraft on our weather. For a few days there were virtually no contrails and the data they gathered under mostly clear, blue skies in part led to the discovery of "global dimming". Global dimming is the decrease in the amounts of solar radiation that reaches the earth surface. It presents a paradox. It is believed that an absence of particle pollution could in turn lead to accelerated global warming.

The image above compares Nitrogen Dioxide levels from this past March (top) to average levels form 2015-2019 (bottom).

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a large part of the world's economic activities to a standstill. The reduction in pollution has been significant and is now again allowing a window of opportunity for climate scientists to study our atmosphere and learn more about the impact of aerosols on it. Just like 9/11, this is another tragedy that might provide us with a small positive that researchers can take advantage of. Studying a relatively cleaner atmosphere can help climate scientists get a better understanding of how aerosols influence the earth's temperature and improve models that try to predict it.

Could our current health crisis help us mitigate our coming (some would argue it's here) climate change crisis? A recent post in Forbes Magazine pointed out at least three ways the lessons learned from our pandemic could help us face climate change:

1. Scientific facts matter and have to be taken seriously 

2. Delayed response costs lives and hurts the economy

3. Globally coordinated policy measures are required

In the end, it would be nice for something good to come out of this awful pandemic.


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