Last year, between August and September you contributed to all the pollution recorded. If you were in a car, bus or train with a combustion engine — in fact, if you did virtually anything using electricity you produced nitrogen dioxide, a nasty-smelling, gaseous pollutant. In cities, almost all of it comes from vehicle exhausts. But it can also be produced by power plants, factories and anything else that burns things.
With people increasingly worried about the impact of burning fossil fuels, the scientific community is investing more money into studying its effects. One experiment is the European Space Agency’s Sentinel 5P environmental monitoring satellite. Using state-of-the-art photo-optic equipment it can create images of real-time NO2 pollution anywhere on the planet. These eerie black and white images are a ghostly echo of all the NO2 we produce.
In The U.S. annual average ambient NO2 concentrations, as measured at area-wide monitors, have decreased by more than 40% since 1980.
Wildfires across North America have made headline news for the past few years. But the NO2 produced by these fires barely registers when compared with the huge fires in Africa. Instead, North America’s NO2 map looks not unlike a population density map. New York City, Los Angeles and Mexico City produced some of the highest concentrations of NO2 in August and September 2018. But there are also a few anomalies including smaller cities, like Fort McMurray in Canada and Monterrey in Mexico, which also produced an uncharacteristically large amount of pollution. While this may make the continent’s output look bad, according to the EPA, NO2 emissions have fallen 60 per cent in the US since the 1980s. We will just have to imagine how much worse things were 30 years ago.
India’s primary source of energy is coal. Coal mining started 1774 in Raniganj under the British rule, but has continued to grow after Independence. The coal mines of Jharia, near Dhanbad in Jharkhand, actually caught fire and have been burning uninterrupted since 1916.
Sadly, if we want a picture of what things may have looked like in North America 30 years ago, the small town of Korba in India might be a place to start. One of the dots on the map of Asian NO2 is Korba. Its population is roughly 360,000, but the highest recorded concentrations of NO2 levels near the town were higher than all but two American cities — and they were New York and Los Angeles. The reason for this concentration is Korba’s many power plants, mines and factories. In this region industrialisation is the major source of NO2, however, it is telling that many Chinese cities, which were once the worst sources of this pollution, have vastly improved.
Europe and the Middle East
Data from 1st June to 31st August 2018 showed that Mpumalanga in South Africa produced the most NO2 anywhere in the world. Emissions from coal-fired powerplants in one of the region’s largest towns, eMalahleni (meaning place of coal) were said to be responsible for more than half of hospital admissions and deaths due to respiratory illness in 2014.
Like in North America, the NO2 atlas of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East highlights big cities. But one of the more interesting facets is the clear Mediterranean shipping routes — drawn out across the sea as black lines connecting the Rock of Gibraltar with Suez Canal, the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and across the Indian Ocean. It also shows the patterned geography of Europe with dark, uninhabited mountain regions contrasting bright port cities, industrial towns, and metropolises. In Northern Europe in particular, the popularity of diesel vehicles makes spotting urban environments sadly easy. Huge clouds of NO2 can be here seen blowing from continental Europe across to the UK.
European Space Agency’s air quality monitoring Sentinel-5P satellite
The images above were all created by the European Space Agency’s state-of-the-art air quality monitoring satellite. Sentinel-5P was launched by the ESA in October 2017. It’s mission: to perform atmospheric monitoring of the world’s air pollution. Since its arrival Sentinel-5P has been orbiting around our Earth at a height of about 824 km using its TROPOMI instrument, an ultraviolet, visible, near and short-wavelength infraredspectrometer to monitor the scale of our air quality problem. During its seven-year lifespan, Sentinel-5P will monitor atmospheric levels of Ozone, Nitrogen Dioxide, Sulphur Dioxide, Formaldehyde, Aerosol, Carbon Monoxide, Methane, and even clouds.