Artist’s concept of how Sentinel-5P satellite monitors pollution within the Earth’s atmosphere
Data from Sentinel-5P and other Earth observation satellites are being used to investigate links between pollution and COVID-19 cases. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

In the unprecedented circumstances surrounding the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, the world is increasingly looking to the scientific community for clear information and solutions. In response, six of the world’s largest geoscience societies have issued a declaration to affirm the role of Earth and space science in addressing global challenges.

“Geoscience is dealing with several challenging global threats, and therefore, it is imperative that our community gets more unified and efficient than ever.”

“We are now experiencing a global emergency,” said Alberto Montanari, president of the European Geosciences Union (EGU). “Geoscience is dealing with several challenging global threats, and therefore, it is imperative that our community gets more unified and efficient than ever.”

The pansociety declaration was delivered on 4 May, the opening day of the EGU General Assembly, which is taking place online.

“In recognition of the significance of international cooperation in science, technology and innovation, and particularly within the Earth, planetary and space science community, the European Geosciences Union, the American Geophysical Union, the Asia Oceania Geosciences Society, the Geological Society of America, the Japan Geoscience Union and The Geological Society of London declare our commitment to work together to support and promote all forms of geoscience research,” reads the declaration.

Accompanying the statement is a 10-point list of shared responsibilities. It details how geoscience research can support the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals while building public trust through transparent and ethical practices.

Throughout the pandemic, Earth and space science communities have helped to build understanding of the virus, from Earth observation to increased communication.

Emerging Links Between Air Quality and COVID-19

Studies about the connection between the spread of disease and air quality have used data from satellites such as NASA’s Terra and Aura missions and the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Sentinel-5P mission.

Nobody was surprised that air pollution, in the form of nitrogen dioxide in the troposphere, has been temporarily reduced in cities across the world as industry, transport, and other economic activities have ground to a halt.

Determining links between air pollution and the spread of COVID-19 cases is messier.

One study, led by Francesca Dominici at Harvard University, examined the link between COVID-19 mortality rates in the continental United States and long-term exposure to fine particulate matter. Dominici’s team found that even a tiny increase in the amount of PM2.5 (particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 micrometers or less) appears to significantly raise the likelihood of dying from the disease.

A separate study, led by Edoardo Conticini at the University of Siena, linked poor air quality to the high death rates seen in the Italian regions of Lombardy and Emilia Romagna, both in the country’s industrial north.

Of course, the big caveat with these provisional studies is the high number of unknowns surrounding the novel coronavirus, such as the role of age and the causal mechanisms between exposure to pollution and the evolution of COVID-19 in patients, not to mention the complex web of confounding factors, such as population densities, lifestyles, and local public health responses, that also contribute to the development and outcome of the disease.

Shifting Focus of Earth Observation Data

Sandra Cauffman, acting director of NASA’s Earth Science Division, said that Earth observation data will soon play a bigger role in this research. NASA is planning to redirect some existing programs and provide an additional $2 million for satellite projects to address the environmental, economic, and societal impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In the end, what drives Earth observation is the societal benefit and how we can use [these] data for the global benefit.”

NASA has also teamed up with ESA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency to host a public hackathon scheduled for 30 and 31 May in which Earth observation data will be used to develop solutions related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In the end, what drives Earth observation is the societal benefit and how we can use [these] data for the global benefit,” said Cauffman.

To bolster efforts in Europe, the Copernicus Programme for Earth observation is providing additional information about air quality levels in 50 of the continent’s major cities. Meanwhile, scientists using grants from the European Research Council have been given the option to refocus their work toward coronavirus-related issues.

Sharing Geoscience Online

About 18,000 participants had been expected to attend the EGU General Assembly, one of Europe’s most important geoscience gatherings. In its place, EGU’s Sharing Geoscience Online is running throughout the week with livestreamed talks, short courses, and opportunities to interact with researchers.

Prominent geoscientists have used the platform to reflect on lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Chris McEntee, former executive director and CEO of AGU, said that the community should think big and take inspiration from Winston Churchill’s response to World War II. “This is an opportune time for Earth and space science to be even more relevant and valuable to society, and to intersect more with society’s solutions in the future,” she said.

Jonathan Bamber, a glaciologist and previous president of EGU, is pleased that the status of science has been publicly elevated in recent weeks, as world leaders give regular pandemic updates flanked by medical and scientific experts. The key to maintaining the public’s trust, he believes, is to keep working together and promote open science.

“In times of emergency or crisis, cooperation is better than competition,” said Bamber. “Integrity and trust are vital to what we do, and part of developing that trust with our audience is being transparent about what we do.”

—James Dacey (@JamesDacey), Science Writer


Dacey, J. (2020), Geoscience societies commit to tackling global challenges, Eos, 101, Published on 07 May 2020.

Text © 2020. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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