Geography, Earth and environment at Brighton

Air quality station with Dr Kevin Wyche

Coronavirus ‘shifting the balance of chemistry’ in the air

Fewer cars on the streets and planes in the sky may be reducing some harmful pollutants – but it’s possibly increasing the levels of others, according to the University of Brighton’s Dr Kevin Wyche.Dr Kevin Wyche

Amidst speculation the COVID-19 pandemic could lead to a ‘green recovery’, Dr Wyche, Principal Lecturer in Atmospheric Science, says data from the university’s Advanced Air Quality research station proves the situation is a lot more complicated than that.

Dr Wyche told the University of Brighton podcast: “The atmosphere is a really complex beast with thousands of different species in it, just because we’re reducing the concentration of one thing doesn’t mean we’re reducing the concentration of everything.

“Nitrogen dioxide levels are down around 40% compared to this time last year. But we’re seeing other pollutants go up. Ozone, a harmful respiratory pollutant, is up between 20-30% on this time last year which could increase the risk while we are dealing with COVID-19.

“If we reduce numbers of big particles from the atmosphere that come out of diesel exhausts etc, we’re removing the ability for them to scavenge those tiny little particles which are more harmful.

“It goes without saying that the effects of coronavirus are terrible. But we’re also seeing a fascinating experiment which could be showing what might happen in the future if we do manage to clean up our air”.

Dr Wyche, the university’s Air Environment Research group and Phlorum have shared their early findings with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), with a journal submission being prepared.

The findings have not surprised Dr Wyche, but he will be interested to see what changes as the temperatures rise over the coming months: “We get a lot more photochemistry occurring in the troposphere as we get into the summer. If the atmosphere becomes more chemically active, we get a lot more secondary pollutants, like ozone, forming. So I’m not entirely sure what’s going to happen going forward”.


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Laura Ruby • May 11, 2020

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