Researchers receive grant to study pandemic's impact on greenhouse gas emissions

A Penn State-led research team is measuring the rapid changes in greenhouse gas emissions that resulted from cities implementing stay-at-home measures to curb the transmission of COVID-19. Credit: PixabayAll Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Traffic levels in North America plummeted in March 2020 as governments implemented stay-at-home measures to prevent the transmission of COVID-19. A two-year, $400,000 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Program Office will allow a Penn State-led research team to measure the rapid changes in greenhouse gas emissions that resulted from lower traffic levels and efforts to curb transmission of the virus.

The team is one of eight research groups receiving funding to study how COVID-19 mitigation measures and human activities affected local and regional air quality.

“This is a project of opportunity,” said Ken Davis, professor of atmospheric and climate science at Penn State and principal investigator of the project. “For years we have been using a network of instruments deployed across cities to monitor greenhouse gas emissions and to try to develop emissions monitoring systems. When governments implemented stay-at-home policies, we realized that across this whole network of cities where these measurement networks exist, we had an opportunity to test the system and see how well it works.”

The team will use existing tower-based measurement networks in Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, Indianapolis, the Washington-Baltimore metropolitan area, Boston and Toronto to study how the pandemic and the cities’ mitigation efforts affected levels of carbon dioxide and methane emissions. They will use carbon monoxide and radioactive carbon dioxide as tracer gases to distinguish biological carbon dioxide — carbon dioxide release by plants, animals, bacteria and humans through respiration — from carbon dioxide emitted through the burning of fossil fuels. Penn State researchers will lead the effort to estimate the cities’ greenhouse gas emissions at high spatial and temporal resolutions.

The project will test how well high-resolution, sector-specific emissions monitoring networks work and identify the limits of these systems. It also will move communities closer to the ability to monitor greenhouse gas emissions mitigation efforts in near real time.

“COVID-19 kicked the metabolisms of these cities,” said Davis, who also holds an appointment in Penn State’s Earth and Environmental Systems Institute. “We’re trying to determine how well we can study an event like this with our current monitoring systems. One day, communities will want to put in greenhouse gas emissions mitigation systems and policies to reduce emissions, and they will want to know how well these systems and policies work. We’re trying to develop a toolbox for the world to be able to monitor changes in emissions that we hope will be happening for reasons other than a pandemic.”

Also participating from Penn State is Natasha Miles, associate research professor in the Department of Meteorology and Atmospheric Science. Additional investigators include Jocelyn Turnbull, University of Colorado; Ray Weiss and Jooil Kim, University of California San Diego; John Lin and Logan Mitchell, University of Utah; and Kevin Gurney and Geoffrey Roest, Northern Arizona University. Collaborators from the University of Toronto and Harvard University will participate in the project.

Last Updated October 19, 2021