New NASA Research Projects Probe COVID-19 Impacts

The new projects look at food- and water-supply stability and how changes in human activity are affecting the environment.

The COVID-19 pandemic has touched most aspects of human life. In recent months, NASA has initiated research projects focused on how the human response to the pandemic has affected our environment, like how air quality has improved in the wake of reduced vehicular traffic in many places. But the tentacles of the pandemic extend well beyond that.

How have production disruptions affected agriculture and food supply? What about our ability to forecast water availability in coming months? How do changes in activity levels affect environmental conditions?
NASA's Earth Science Division recently selected three new projects that aim to answer these and other pandemic-related questions for Rapid Response and Novel Research (RRNES) awards. RRNES is funding quick-turnaround projects that make innovative use of the agency's resources and data to better understand regional-to-global environmental, economic, and societal impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The new projects join a growing list of RRNES research now underway.

This preliminary map shows the slowdown of activity at Disneyland in California. Areas in blue indicate a reduction in vehicle concentration or movement as a result of COVID-19 pandemic response efforts. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/EOS at Nanyang Techn

This preliminary map shows the slowdown of activity at Disneyland in California. Areas in blue indicate a reduction in vehicle concentration or movement as a result of COVID-19 pandemic response efforts. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/EOS at Nanyang Technological University

Activity Mapping: Slowing Down and Speeding Up

Most governments responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by implementing some form of shutdown; however, shutdown orders and their enforcement have varied extensively at local, national, and global levels. To determine what effects these reductions in activity have had on virus control and on the environment, we need to look at the global picture. Luckily, satellites make that possible.

Scientist Sang-Ho Yun and his team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, along with researchers from the Earth Observatory of Singapore, are using satellite-derived synthetic aperture radar (SAR) data to map changes in activity levels in cities around the world.

SAR data can show changes to Earth's surface over time. In this case, the scientists are looking at things like how the concentration and arrangement of cars in parking lots and on highways has changed from pre-pandemic patterns as well as changes to construction sites.

"Using the SAR data, we'll be able to provide citywide maps that quantify the changes in activity, both the slowing down due to lockdowns and the gradual increase as governments decide to reopen," said Yun. "These maps will help us to better understand how activity reductions correspond to different cities' levels of success in controlling virus outbreaks, and how those reductions correspond to observed improvements in environmental conditions like air quality."

Research from this project will also be incorporated into NASA's COVID-19 dashboard.

NASA accepts proposals for new RRNES research on a rolling basis.