Italy's coronavirus response dramatically reduces air pollution emissions, satellites show

As the world scrambles to confront the disease caused by a novel coronavirus, Italy has been forced to take such dramatic measures that the country's emissions have changed, as seen from space.

That's on display in a new video produced by the European Space Agency (ESA) using data gathered by the agency's Copernicus Sentinel-5P satellite. That spacecraft tracks air pollution in the atmosphere, and the satellite has seen a sharp decrease in emissions of nitrogen dioxide over Italy during the first two and a half months of 2020. The Italian prime minister ordered northern Italy into a lockdown on Sunday (March 8) to try to contain the disease, known as COVID-19.

"Although there could be slight variations in the data due to cloud cover and changing weather, we are very confident that the reduction in emissions that we can see coincides with the lockdown in Italy causing less traffic and industrial activities," Claus Zehner, the mission's manager at ESA, said in a statement.

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A still image from an animation showing nitrogen dioxide levels in northern Italy decreasing over 2020, in part in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. (Image credit: Contains modified Copernicus Sentinel data (2020), processed by ESA, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)

Italy has seen the greatest number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 of any country except China, where the outbreak, which is now classified as a pandemic, began. Cases were particularly prevalent in northern Italy, hence the prime minister's regulations closing public spaces there. Since then, he has extended the measures throughout the country.

As people stayed home more and more, nitrogen dioxide emissions in Italy, particularly the country's northern region, fell. Copernicus Sentinel-5P measures levels of this compound, along with ozone, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and methane, among other substances. All of these gases can affect human health and the climate, which is why the ESA monitors them.

But right now, the spread of COVID-19 is a much more pressing concern, and the reduction in emissions suggests that people are taking steps to reduce their own exposure and that of their neighbors.

Email Meghan Bartels at or follow her @meghanbartels. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook. 

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Meghan Bartels
Senior Writer

Meghan is a senior writer at and has more than five years' experience as a science journalist based in New York City. She joined in July 2018, with previous writing published in outlets including Newsweek and Audubon. Meghan earned an MA in science journalism from New York University and a BA in classics from Georgetown University, and in her free time she enjoys reading and visiting museums. Follow her on Twitter at @meghanbartels.