Fewer cars, cleaner air? Scientists study this byproduct of COVID-19

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- If all you've done lately is get some fresh air in your backyard or take short jaunts for essentials, you may not realize traffic in the Triangle is virtually non-existent even at rush hour.

And for that kind of scene to last weeks on end, well, it's something environmental scientists never thought they would see.

"Trying to turn off emissions, trying to turn off economic activity which lead to emissions is something that we could have never dreamt of," Sarav Arunachalam told ABC11 on Thursday via Skype from his home.

He said for such an event to happen worldwide is even more remarkable.

COMPLETE COVERAGE OF COVID-19 IN NC

The environmental scientist who works for the UNC Institute for the Environment said he views this forced experiment with mixed emotions.

"This is a fascinating thing to see happening. But, of course, I have to think about the huge loss of lives and the other economic losses that are being faced by the country," he said.

Arunachalam said data coming into air-quality-monitoring stations here and across the world won't be compiled and analyzed right away.

But there is already data available on the dramatic reduction in the miles traveled by light-duty vehicles.

And that's being used to estimate reductions in emissions.

He noted, "In New York City alone, I saw numbers that said there's been about 50 percent (decrease) in carbon monoxide."

He said there are an estimated 2.8 billion people staying home worldwide.

That's more than a third of the world's population.

And that isolation has drastically reduced vehicle emissions.

But early hard data on any change in air quality may still be a month out.

"From a scientific point of view, this is an opportunity that we have to take advantage of the results of this experiment," Arunachalam said.

Still, seeing the death and suffering caused by the pandemic makes him mindful that this is an experiment no one asked for or wanted.

But the best way to honor those who have suffered may be by not squandering a chance to better understand environmental science.

"As a scientist, I'm excited to look at this as an opportunity to understand what is happening and do something differently down the road," he said.

And maybe make the world a better place for all those who were lucky enough to escape the deadly grip of the novel coronavirus.
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