COVID-19 Has Cut Air Pollution in Some Countries—But Will this Blip Make a Difference?

COVID-19 Has Cut Air Pollution in Some Countries—But Will this Blip Make a Difference?

What effects will this have on Hunting and Fishing?

With the global economy grinding to a halt, numerous flights cancelled, and people staying at home, atmospheric scientists are paying close attention to satellites and industry data to see how the response to COVID-19 has impacted our planet.

It’s obviously a terrible situation, with more than 34,000 deaths worldwide at the time this story was published. And experts say that the real impact to climate change is what we take away from the pandemic—the choices we make in our recovery. It does, however, provide scientists some insight as to what happens to our atmosphere when our lifestyles and economy undergo major change. “It’s an unwanted atmospheric experiment,” says Helen Worden, an atmospheric scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR).

A few analyses have shown that emissions from China dropped in the weeks following the Chinese New Year, when the country was hit hard by the new coronavirus.

Lauri Myllyvirta, an analyst at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, looked at industry data to determine the country’s emissions. During that period, coal consumption dropped, oil refining slowed, and numerous flights were cancelled, among other impacts. Based on such industry information, he calculated in an analysis posted on Carbon Briefthat China’s carbon dioxide emissions were down by about a quarter from 2019 in the four weeks following the Chinese New Year.

Meanwhile, satellite data from the NASA OMI instrument showed that nitrogen dioxide was down by an average of 36 percent over China in the week after the Chinese New Year, Myllyvirta reported. Nitrogen dioxide irritates the respiratory system and contributes to asthma, and also reacts in the atmosphere to form ozone, another major pollutant.

In a report posted on the NCAR website, Worden describes her findings, based on observations from the NASA MOPITT instrument, which measures pollution in the lower atmosphere. After the Chinese New Year, the instrument measured drops in peak nitrogen dioxide up to 70 percent below levels recorded for the same period last year. For carbon monoxide, a pollutant that in high concentrations reduces the amount of oxygen entering the bloodstream, levels dropped as low as 30 to 45 percent from last year. The smaller decrease in CO is partly because the molecule lives longer in the atmosphere, so older carbon monoxide from before the crisis was already in the air during the measurements. Also, a lot of carbon monoxide also comes from residential wood-burning, which is used a lot in rural areas. “In nitrogen dioxide, we definitely see a lot less,” says Worden of her findings. “In carbon monoxide and aerosols, we see less over Beijing, Wuhan, and Shanghai. But then south of there, we actually see an increase because there were more wildfires this year in Southeast Asia.”

Worden adds that it’s important to keep in mind that the weather can affect how much pollution settles over an area, so further analysis is needed to tell how much of that decrease is due to the coronavirus response and how much is just variation in meteorology.

Now, as China is emerging from the virus-caused shutdown, emissions are starting to tick back up, notes Myllyvirta. “Just in the past few days or week, things have more or less returned to normal levels of pollution,” he says. “We might even be seeing a bit of rebound above those levels as factories make up for lost time.”

As the virus has spread across the world, other economies have also shut down, reducing fossil fuel consumption and carbon pollution. An analysis by the European Space Agency shows that nitrogen dioxide emissions over Italy are down. “Although there could be slight variations in the data due to cloud cover and changing weather, we are very confident that the reduction in concentrations that we can see, coincides with the lockdown in Italy causing less traffic and industrial activities,” said Claus Zehner, manager of the agency’s Copernicus Sentinel-5P satellite mission, in a statement.

Myllyvirta says the pollution drops in Europe aren’t as dramatic as those in China were, but they're still substantial. Electricity use in Italy is down by about 20 percent, and down by about 10 percent in Spain and France. “There’s definitely a notable reduction in urban air pollution levels,” he adds. “The biggest impact is on car transport … Traffic-related air pollution in northern Italy, France, and Spain is down quite a bit.”

Myllyvirta adds that during India’s first day on lockdown, pollution monitoring stations had their lowest nitrogen dioxide readings on record.

In New York, carbon monoxide levels were down by nearly 50 percent from the previous year, according to analysis by Columbia University scientists. This is likely due to a drop in traffic, as cars and trucks are the main source of carbon monoxide in the state. As the situation worsens across the country, air pollution and carbon dioxide will likely also decline from other urban areas.

But this short-term stall of our fossil-fuel burning society is just a small blip in our overwhelmingly upward trend in greenhouse gas emissions. If anything, the reduction in aerosols—fine particles that include soot from combustion—might even cause a tiny bit of warming this summer, an article on Weather Underground explains. While particulate matter is undeniably bad for our health, those aerosol particles in the atmosphere actually provide a slight cooling effect. (It’s likely any effect would be unremarkable and within the natural variation in climate, though).

What does matter, however, is what we do next. Economic downturns in general tend to lead to brief drops in emissions. During the 2008-2009 Great Recession, global carbon dioxide emissions went down by about two percent from previous years. But after that, we went straight back to polluting carbon, with global emissions growing in subsequent years. (Although that rate might now be slowing down a little.) After the downturn, Myllyvirta points out that China invested heavily in infrastructure as part of its stimulus, producing massive amounts of steel and cement—big sources of greenhouse gas emissions.

But economic growth and stimulus packages need not necessarily be tied to ramping up carbon pollution. Research by the Global Carbon Project team has shown that at least 18 countries have been able to grow their economies over the past decade while cutting back on greenhouse gas emissions. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 included provisions for what amounted to the largest clean energy bill in the United States’ history. In the decade that followed the recession, stimulus money helped renewables become affordable and rapidly increase their share of the market.

Now, as legislators worldwide work on rescue packages, the planet may hang in the balance. “Do you support industries that are viable and actually have a future?” says Myllyvirta. “Or do you support fossil fuel industries that were failing already before the crisis?”

Written by Ula Chrobak for Popular Science and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to

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Nature’s Best Toilet Paper Substitutes

Nature’s Best Toilet Paper Substitutes

As I write this, Charmin, Cottonelle, and Downy Soft toilet paper, to name a few, are “currently unavailable” on Amazon. This verifies what you’ve always suspected: When things get scary in the US, the first thing most of us think about is pooping. The average American goes through 30 rolls of toilet paper a year, which is kind of impressive but still not a reason to stock an entire wall of your basement with them. Seventy percent of the world’s population doesn’t even use bathroom tissue. They use a variety of things, including, in some countries, the left hand. I have no intention of covering that technique here.

People have always devoted a lot of thought to cleaning their backsides.

As early as the 6th century, the Chinese scholar Yan Zhitui wrote that he preferred not to use paper containing quotations from the sages. The first task-specific toilet paper was invented in China in 1391. The sheets were initially intended for the royal family. They were big and perfumed. A 16th century French writer recommended “the neck of a goose that is well downed.” Doesn’t sound like a bad idea. On the other hand, it’s tough stockpiling goose necks.

The Romans pooped communally—just like they did most things—and used a sea sponge attached to a stick to clean themselves.

Between uses, the stick was plunged into sea water. This, incidentally, is where the phrase, “the sh*tty end of the stick” comes from. The Vikings used old sheep wool and smooth pottery shards. They were hardy people. The Eskimos used two of the better toilet paper substitutes: snow in the winter and tundra moss when it was available. Snow, incidentally, is often ranked both as one the best and one of the worst alternatives by natural-bathroom-tissue experts. On the plus side, it is fantastically effective, both smooth for comfort ,and mildly abrasive for effective cleaning. What’s more, it can be custom-shaped. On the minus side, it’s really cold. It’s also wet. A wet butt is not a good thing.

In this country, until the late 1800s, it was common to find a corncob hanging from a string in the outhouse.

I know, I don’t want to think about it either. Seems like it would start out too smooth and end up too rough. And, of course, it was communal. Really, I have no idea why it was so widely used.

The Sears catalog changed everything and was a quantum leap in bathroom technology. It was free, contained hundreds of soft, uncoated pages, and gave you something to read in the meantime. The sort of toilet paper we use today wasn’t commercially available until 1857. Gayett’s Medicated Paper for the Water Closet contained aloe and was marketed as being good for hemorrhoids, which were called “piles” back in the day. The patent for rolled toilet paper was granted in 1891. Fun fact for settling bar bets: The original patent drawing shows the paper unspooling from the top rather than the bottom. This is the only sensible way to do it, but some people like to quibble.

If you find yourself in a survival situation—or if you just can’t buy toilet paper anywhere right now—you’ve got options.

Believe it or not, smooth stones, like river rocks, of a fairly small size are considered one of the better choices for the task. Not particularly absorbent, but they’re better than a corn cob. The cones of Douglas fir trees are recommended because they are said to be comparatively soft. “Comparatively” is the key word here. A handful of grass stalks, all carefully and tightly bundled and then folded over to create a “brush” is another popular alternative on survivalist websites. It actually looks sort of doable.

But if my ass were on the line, I’d reach for one of these six options, at least one of which is available anytime and almost anywhere in the great outdoors.


A handful of soft moss is just the thing.
. Popular Science

The gold standard among natural toilet papers. Think of it as green Charmin. Moss is soft, absorbent, and full of iodine, a natural germ killer. It grows all over the country, and not just on the north side of trees. Don’t be particular about species. For one, it’s extremely difficult to identify. For another, it doesn’t matter. Go for it. Make sure you have more than you think you’ll need. (Note: This should probably go without saying, but the time to go look for wiping material is before you lower your trousers. It’s a lot harder to move around afterward.)

Old man’s beard

A bunch of old man’s beard or Spanish moss gathered from tree limb will do the job.
. Popular Science

There are 87 kinds of old man’s beard, including Spanish Moss (sort of, it’s complicated) and similar lichens. They all grow on trees and look like tangled fishing line (but make much better, softer wiping material). It also contains usnic acid, which is effective against Streptococcus and Staphylococcus bacteria. Dried, it also makes a great fire starter. Win-win.

Lamb’s ear

Lamb’s ear leaves are soft and absorbent.
. Popular Science

Another standout. It’s not native but grows throughout the US. The leaves are big, quite soft, and absorbent. They are said to feel like sitting on a cloud, which may be stretching things a bit. Lamb’s ear has natural antibiotic qualities that makes it nice on your backside. It also makes a great alternative to a band-aid if you don’t have any.


Mullein leaves are much like lamb’s ears, but usually bigger.
. Popular Science

Similar to Lamb’s ear and found in all 50 states. You just can’t do better than those big, soft, absorbent leaves. It’s also fairly sturdy, which reduces the chance of poking through it. Throughout history, mullein has been used by just about everybody for just about everything. Tribes in the Southwest smoked it to treat mental illness. Eastern tribes used the leaves to treat colds, bronchitis, and asthma. Choctaws used a poultice of its leaves for headaches. Early European settlers used common mullein seeds to paralyze fish. The seeds were also crushed and put into diked areas of slow water. Today, mullein leaves are occasionally used to fashion insoles for weary hikers. You can’t do that with real toilet paper.

Slippery elm

Slipper elm leaves have a somewhat rough texture that help achieve that clean feeling.
. Popular Science

Okay, these leaves are not soft and absorbent. If anything, they’re kind of like sandpaper because the hairs on them contain silica crystals. On the plus side, that is the same property that makes them effective at cleaning. Just be gentle.

Osage orange

The crevices and bumps of the young Osage orange fruit aid in removal.
. Popular Science

It’s said to be one of the best butt wipes ever, but only during a small window of time. The mature fruit is too big to get into the relevant area; what you want is young fruit. The small crevices and bumps on its surface are said to be of the ideal texture for cleaning. You want to make sure to use undamaged fruit, because Osage orange contains a sticky sap that you really don’t want back there.

Finally, a couple words of caution. If you can’t find any of the six above and decide instead to just reach for whatever leaf is handy, give it at least a cursory glance before putting it into action. Most will be fine, but you’ll want to stay away from anything on this list.

Also, wash your hands. I know you are already doing a lot of that lately, but fecal bacteria is a major cause of backcountry nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting. There’s only one right way to do it, assuming you’ve got a companion. After you’re done, have someone squirt some water and some soap into your hands. Your contaminated hands shouldn’t touch anything. Wash thoroughly. Then, you can get back to scouring the internet for toilet paper.

Written by Bill Heavey/Field for Popular Science and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to

Featured image provided by Popular Science