COVID-19 Is Affecting The Environment, But How?

Eight NASA scientists are studying the relationship between COVID-19 and the environment

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 lockdown in March, NASA has funded and supported eight scientists who are studying the relationship between the virus and the environment. NASA is calling it a “rapid-turnaround project grant,” as scientists study topics such as the effect of the virus on US crops, the decrease in travel and its effect on the climate, and even ways the environment can accelerate or decelerate the spread of COVID-19 (1).

Researchers William Smith and Dave Duda, from NASA’s Langley Research Center, have been exploring how a decrease in air traffic, specifically in airplane contrails, will affect the atmospheric temperature. The two have previously studied contrails, exhaust fumes that trail behind the plane, and are currently using several different methods to pursue their study (1). For example, the researchers are using NASA’s Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS), which measures masses of clouds covering the planet, also known as cloud cover (2), and the properties of both clouds and aerosols (3). Smith and Duda have used technology and to examine contrails properties and ways to trap energy and reflect sunlight (1). They also have compared previous years’ contrail data to an estimate of 2020’s data using the “contrail detection algorithm”(1). The contrail detection algorithm is used to detect contrails by satellite data from MODIS, which they then match to a flight path to confirm the detected contrails (6). Smith and Duda believe this research will reveal whether or not a decrease in air traffic prevents contrails from forming and stops heat from being absorbed, thus cooling the environment (1).

Another researcher, Christopher Potter, at NASA’s Ames Research Center, is also studying the effect of decreased travel due to COVID restrictions and its effect on the environment. Potter is exploring the possibility that fewer cars on the road can actually cause highways, parking lots, or other such surfaces, to trap sunlight and reflect infrared heat. Located in the San Francisco Bay Area, Potter is measuring thermal heat flux to prove if surfaces are either heating up or cooling off in a world less traveled (1). Thermal heat flux, defined as the rate of heat energy being transferred through a specific surface (4), is measured through a sensor imaging technology located on the Space Station referred to as ECOSTRESS (1). ECOSTRESS can illustrate the temperature of large landmasses, and with the help of Landsats thermal infrared sensor brightness satellite as well, Potter can produce detailed and helpful images of the heat on various surfaces (see image 1). Potter believes that COVID restrictions could have changed the Bay Area’s heat flux, which could have significant effects on the environment (1). The relationship between COVID-19 and the environment isn’t a one-way street in the sense that a “pandemic way of life” is affecting the environment; the environment can also affect the virus and how it is spread. A professor at the University of Puerto Rico, Pablo Méndez-Lázaro, is studying if the seasonal African dust storms can carry the virus via the microorganisms in the dust (1). Méndez-Lázaro and his team are using both MODIS and the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) (5) to measure and characterize aerosols found in the African dust (1). Additionally, Yulia R. Gel, a professor at the University of Texas, is also studying the environment’s effect on the transmission of the virus. She is using weather data collected by two satellites, Atmospheric Infrared Sounder and the Cross-track Infrared Sounder, as well as aerosol data from MODIS and Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer (MISR), to examine the effects of weather conditions on the transmission rate of COVID-19 (1). This information is crucial to prepare for other possible surges in the upcoming winter season.

– Tess Holland


  1. Goldbaum, E. (2020, September 3). NASA Funds Eight New Projects Explore Connections Between the Environment and COVID-19. NASA. Retrieved from
  2. Cloud Cover. Merriam-Webster. Retrieved from  
  3. Owen, T. (2020, November 1). MODIS. NASA. Retrieved from
  4. Heat Flux. Science Direct. Retrieved from
  5. Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite. Joint Polar Satellite System. Retrieved from
  6. Naranjo, L. (2013, October 11). On the Trail of Contrails. NASA. Retrieved from