2020 was a tough year and the move to 2021 comes with high hopes. With a novel virus raging around the world, unprecedented wildfires burning in many areas, there’s no two ways about it, last year was one for the books.
Our hearts go out to all those who’ve lost loved ones or whose lives have been turned inside out. These events had a dramatic impact on our lives in several ways, and pollution has played many parts.
Here’s a look back at 10 air quality memories from 2020:
- Australia bushfires
From September 2019 to March 2020, fires rage across Australia with catastrophic effects. As of March 9, 2020, the fires had burnt an unbelievable 72,000-square miles—that’s almost 10 New York Cities. Many human lives were lost and an astronomical number of animals were killed.
The air pollution from these fires was felt far and wide, causing the worst-ever air quality to date, with PM2.5 levels reaching nearly 400µg/m3 in parts of Sydney. Moving into the new year, we’re also getting deeper into bushfire season. Fires are burning in Western Australia, threatening homes and lives. We wish all of you who may be in the area safe passage through this crisis.
- COVID-19: transmission and pollution
In early 2020 the World Health Organisation announced a mysterious Coronavirus-related pneumonia in Wuhan, China. From that point in early January, the now-infamous COVID-19 spread throughout the world. There are 3 direct air quality-related points to look back on.
As the world’s scientific community began to understand more about the transmission of COVID-19, researchers became interested in how air pollution might be involved. While It has been formerly proven for SARS CoV-1 in 2002 that air pollution can facilitate the virus transmission and increase its persistence in the atmosphere, research is ongoing with respect to the relationship between COVID-19 and air quality.
- COVID-19: air quality and health outcomes
We know that air pollution is bad, really bad for your health. Even exposure to moderate levels of pollution for sustained periods of time can cause serious problems like heart attacks, strokes, diabetes and high blood pressure. Now emerging research, including a study from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, finds that breathing more polluted air over many years may itself worsen the effects of COVID-19.
- COVID-19 : how bad air can affect recovery
COVID-19 is a respiratory illness, causing devastating damage to the lungs in many cases. Recovery takes time and we know that exposure to high levels of air pollution can cause distress, exacerbate existing conditions, and even lead to a readmission to the emergency room. Avoiding pollution hotspots and finding fresh air pockets became even more important in 2020 as overstretched health care systems struggled with the influx of patients needing critical care.
- Pollution in a pandemic: masks
Wearing air quality masks used to be a bit out of the ordinary. However, one of the effects COVID-19 has had is to normalize the use of face coverings to prevent the spread of the virus. We’re watching with interest to see how this trend carries over into 2021, potentially continuing even after a vaccine has been widely distributed. Masks are a great way to reduce your exposure to air pollution. Have a look at the analysis we did on how masks can help cyclists.
- Lockdown and air quality: NASA pictures
As COVID-19 related stay-at-home measures were implemented around the world, people stayed off the streets. Travel became virtually non-existent and pollution levels were dropping dramatically. It wasn’t quite that simple though, as we discovered when our scientists started to investigate the phenomenon! To put things into living colour, NASA published some incredible images of the variation in air pollution during lockdowns around the world.
- Staying at home: indoor air quality
We’re all spending a lot more time indoors these days and the research into how COVID-19 is transmitted has shined the spotlight squarely onto indoor air quality and ventilation. This is one of our favorite visualizations of how masks and proper ventilation can reduce the spread of this virus.
8. The rise of civic science: community and personal pollution monitoring
Across the USA we saw many important pieces of legislation rolled-back, funding cut to environmental agencies, and a distinct move away from data- and research-driven policy making. More than 100 environmental rules were planned for rollback (84 completed / 20 in progress as of November 2020 according to the New York Times) last year and air quality won’t escape unscathed.
To fill the gaps, we saw a tremendous surge in civic-science, personal data collection and community efforts to teach, engage, and to take action on environmental science issues. We’re looking forward to seeing the results of these projects as they get rolling in 2021. Check out this example from the pre-COVID days of 2019.
9. A leap forward for active transportation: bikes!
Much was learned about how COVID-19 is transmitted (indoor, confined, limited ventilation spaces) and individuals began to take measures to protect themselves. More and more people began to turn to active transportation for their commutes and daily travel needs. What has been the most popular choice? Cycling! The shift has been seen around the world with incredible investments in infrastructure. Just check out these examples in Europe!
10. Wildfires in Western USA
As we inch into 2021, we’re all still processing the incredible events of the past year, culminating with a brutal wildfire season in North America, Western USA in particular, that smashed all air quality records.
To top it all off, 2020 marked the hottest November ever recorded and a sweeping second wave of COVID-19 cases and renewed shelter in place restrictions in many places of the world. In the midst of all this, we’re hopeful and excited for this new year and the work we will do together in our quest for clean air.
Wishing you all the best in 2021! On behalf of the Plume Labs team, stay safe and breathe free!