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Air pollution falls as coronavirus slows travel, but scientists warn of longer-term threat to climate change progress – CNBC



NASA’s Earth Observatory pollution satellites show “significant decreases” in air pollution over China since the coronavirus outbreak began.

Courtesy of NASA.

Canal water in Venice has cleared up without boat traffic. Air pollution in China has plunged amid unprecedented lockdowns. In Thailand and Japan, mobs of monkeys and deer are roaming streets now devoid of tourists.

The coronavirus pandemic is shutting down countries across the world, causing a significant decline in air pollution in major cities as countries implement stricter quarantines and travel restrictions. 

The unintended air pollution declines from the virus outbreak are just temporary, experts say.

But the pandemic’s unintended climate impact offers a glimpse into how countries and corporations are equipped to handle the slower-moving but destructive climate change crisis. So far, researchers warn that the world is ill-prepared. 

For years, scientists have urged world leaders to combat planet-warming emissions, which have only continued to soar upward. 

“In the midst of this rapidly moving global pandemic, it’s natural that we also think about that other massive threat facing us — global climate change —  and what we might learn now to help us prepare for tomorrow,”  said Peter Gleick, a climate scientist and founder of the Pacific Institute in Berkeley, California. 

“The pandemic is fast, shining a spotlight on our ability or inability to respond to urgent threats. But like pandemics, climate change can be planned for in advance, if politicians pay attention to the warnings of scientists who are sounding the alarm,” Gleick said.   

Clear water is seen in Venice’s canals due to less tourists, motorboats and pollution, as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in Venice, Italy, March 18, 2020.

Manuel Silvestri | Reuters

The virus has infected more than 311,000 people globally and killed at least 13,407. Countries like China and Italy have closed their borders and locked down cities, while the U.S. has closed its northern border with Canada and banned entry of foreign nationals from a slew of affected countries. 

Satellite images from NASA’s Earth Observatory show significant drops in pollution across China and Italy since the start of the outbreak, as travel restrictions in those countries halt air, train and road traffic. 

Italy, which has become a center of the outbreak outside of China, has undergone some visual environmental changes without tourism. Venice’s typically murky waterways have turned clear since the sediment remains on the ground without boat traffic. The water quality in the canals is not necessarily changed, but the air quality has improved. 

“As for the environmental benefits we see from the slowdown of day-to-day life and economic activity in terms of improving air quality and other slight benefits, it’s a good sign that our ecosystems are somewhat resilient if we don’t completely destroy them,” Gleick said. 

“But it would be nice if we could improve our environment without having to cripple our economy,” he added. 

Scientists argue that the long-term impact of the coronavirus pandemic on climate change will depend on how countries and corporations respond to an economic crisis.

The International Energy Agency, or IEA, has warned the virus will weaken global investments in clean energy and industry efforts to reduce emissions, and has called on governments to offer stimulus packages that consider climate change.

But an economic stimulus package that considers global warming will likely not be the response from many countries. 

For example, the Prime Minister of the Czech Republic recently urged the European Union to abandon its landmark green law focusing on carbon neutrality as it grapples with the virus outbreak. The Czech Republic depends largely on nuclear energy and coal. 

Furthermore, major U.S. airlines are asking for billions of dollars in government aid as they face potential bankruptcy from travel decline, which President Donald Trump has endorsed. Air travel is expected to bounce back after the pandemic subsides, and the industry’s emissions are expected to triple by 2050. 

Climate researchers warn that the virus will hinder climate change action from corporations and countries in the long-run. 

Rob Jackson, a professor of Earth system science at Stanford University and chair of the Global Carbon Project, said companies that are hurting financially will likely delay or cancel climate-friendly projects that require investment up front. 

Sarah Myhre, a climate scientist and environmental justice activist, said that the way in which the world recovers from the pandemic is vital in the fight against climate change. 

“If the actions here continue to bail out fossil fuel companies and multinational corporations and banks, and invest in fossil fuel infrastructure, then we are digging a hole deeper into a more violent and dangerous place,” Myhre said. 

“I think that there’s potential for this pandemic to become a moment of mass awaking of our ability to have compassion for each other,” she added. 

New York’s famous Times Square is seen nearly empty due to coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic on March 16, 2020 in New York, United States.

Tayfun Coskun | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

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The coronavirus pandemic is making Earth vibrate less – CTV News



Once-crowded city streets are now empty. Highway traffic has slowed to a minimum. And fewer and fewer people can be found milling about outside.

Global containment measures to combat the spread of the coronavirus have seemingly made the world much quieter. Scientists are noticing it, too.

Around the world, seismologists are observing a lot less ambient seismic noise — meaning, the vibrations generated by cars, trains, buses and people going about their daily lives. And in the absence of that noise, Earth’s upper crust is moving just a little less.

Thomas Lecocq, a geologist and seismologist at the Royal Observatory in Belgium, first pointed out this phenomenon in Brussels.

Brussels is seeing about a 30 per cent to 50 per cent reduction in ambient seismic noise since mid-March, around the time the country started implementing school and business closures and other social distancing measures, according to Lecocq. That noise level is on par with what seismologists would see on Christmas Day, he said.


The reduction in noise has had a particularly interesting effect in Brussels: Lecocq and other seismologists are able to detect smaller earthquakes and other seismic events that certain seismic stations wouldn’t have registered.

Take, for example, the seismic station in Brussels. In normal times, Lecocq said, it’s “basically useless.”

Seismic stations are typically set up outside urban areas, because the reduced human noise makes it easier to pick up on subtle vibrations in the ground. The one in Brussels, however, was built more than a century ago and the city has since expanded around it.

The daily hum of city life means that the station in Brussels wouldn’t typically pick up on smaller seismic events. Seismologists would instead rely on a separate borehole station, which uses a pipe deep in the ground to monitor seismic activity.

“But for the moment, because of the city’s quietness, it’s almost as good as the one on the bottom,” Lecocq said.

Seismologists in other cities are seeing similar effects in their own cities.

Paula Koelemeijer posted a graph on Twitter showing how noise in West London has been affected, with drops in the period after schools and social venues in the United Kingdom closed and again after a government lockdown was announced.

Celeste Labedz, a PhD student at the California Institute of Technology, posted a graph showing an especially stark drop in Los Angeles.

Still, seismologists say the reduction in noise is a sobering reminder of a virus that has sickened more than one million people, killed tens of thousands and brought the normal rhythms of life to a halt.


Lecocq said the graphs charting human noise are evidence that people are listening to authorities’ warnings to stay inside and minimize outside activity as much as possible.

“From the seismological point of view, we can motivate people to say, ‘OK look, people. You feel like you’re alone at home, but we can tell you that everyone is home. Everyone is doing the same. Everyone is respecting the rules,'” he said.

The data can also be used to identify where containment measures might not be as effective, said Raphael De Plaen, a postdoctoral researcher at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

“That could be used in the future by decision makers to figure out, ‘OK, we’re not doing things right. We need to work on that and make sure that people respect that because this is in the interest of everyone.'”

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Billions of people are under coronavirus lockdowns – and now the upper crust of the Earth is shaking less – CBS News



About four billion people — roughly half the world’s population — have reportedly been told to isolate themselves in their homes to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. And the major decrease in the hum of normal human activity has led to a surprising shift in Earth’s vibrations.  

Researchers who study the Earth’s movement said the mandatory shutdown of transportation systems, businesses and other human activities has correlated with the planet shaking noticeably less than usual. A drop in seismic noise — the vibrations in the planet’s crust — is giving scientists the rare chance to monitor small earthquakes, volcanic activity and other subtle tremors that are usually drowned out by the everyday movement of humans. 

The quieter vibrations were observed by Thomas Lecocq, a seismologist at the Royal Observatory of Belgium in Brussels, and published this week in an article in the journal Nature. According to Lecocq, such a dramatic decrease in noise can typically only be experienced briefly around Christmas. 

Lecocq observed that in Belgium, vibrations caused by human activity have decreased by approximately one-third since COVID-19 isolation measures were introduced by the government. The reduction in noise directly correlates with the closing of schools, restaurants and other public spaces in the country on March 14 and the ban of all non-essential travel on March 18. 

While individual human activity such as vehicle traffic or construction sites only cause small movements in the Earth’s crust, together they produce a sizable amount of “background noise” that hinder scientists’ ability to detect natural events at the same frequency. 

Since quarantine measures were introduced, the surface seismometer at the Royal Observatory of Belgium has become more sensitive to quieter seismic activity that it would have previously missed, which could lead to better measurements of small quakes, quarry blasts, storms and crashing ocean waves. 

“This is really getting quiet now in Belgium,” Lecocq said. 

After Lecocq shared his code online, his findings were echoed by seismologists around the world. Researchers in New ZealandScotlandNew JerseyEngland and France have all tweeted similar reports of decreased noise since their respective isolation periods began. 

Celeste Labedz, a graduate student in geophysics at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, tweeted that even Los Angeles is experiencing a similar reduction in noise. “The drop is seriously wild,” she said. 

“How does @Princeton ‘sound’ different now that everyone must #stayathome? Here is the seismic “noise” we record in the basement of Guyot Hall,” seismologist Jessica Irving tweeted. “Campus really is quieter now, especially after the tighter restrictions were put in place.”

However, many stations are specifically located in remote areas or deep underground to avoid picking up on human activity. These stations are likely to see a smaller decrease or no change at all in noise, said Emily Wolin, a geologist at the US Geological Survey in Albuquerque, New Mexico. 

The number of coronavirus cases worldwide continues to skyrocket, with over 1 million confirmed positive cases and over 56,000 deaths as of Friday. But seismologic data show one promising detail — people are listening to health officials and staying home. 

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SpaceX’s latest Starship prototype fails under pressure testing – TechCrunch



The process of designing, testing and building an entirely new spacecraft is definitely a difficult one and bound to encounter some issues. SpaceX’s efforts to build Starship, its massive new fully reusable spaceship, is no exception. The most recent Starship prototype, designated “SN3,” failed catastrophically during cryogenic proof testing, which is designed to simulate pressures the spacecraft would encounter during a test flight.

That might sound familiar: SpaceX’s first prototype, the Mk1, was also destroyed during pressure testing of its fuel tank, and the next full-scale prototype under development, SN1, was also destroyed during a pressure test in late February. Another prototype, SN2, was stripped to just a test article designed for cryogenic testing, and it passed that same cryo test, but now the next full-scale prototype being developed, SN3, has once again succumbed during cryogenic testing at SpaceX’s launch stand in Boca Chica, Texas.

You can see the moment the stacked SN3 fuselage crumples during the cryogenic pressure testing in the video below from Mary (@BocaChicaGal) on YouTube, and its seems pretty likely there won’t be any attempt to rebuild and reuse this prototype. Instead, SpaceX will likely proceed to building its next prototype, presumably named SN4. The original plan was to have SN4 be a high-altitude flight prototype, but that seems unlikely given the result of this test.

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SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk said on Twitter that the SN3 failure “may have been a test configuration mistake,” rather than an issue with the spacecraft itself. He said that the company will no more once they undergo a data review in the morning.

This is most definitely a setback, but not an unusual one in the process of spacecraft development. SpaceX has also had successes in their development program, including a test of the “Starhopper” sub-scale prototype, which proved out the basic performance of the Raptor engines that SpaceX is using to propel the Starship, and eventually its Super Heavy booster.

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