By Mark Waghorn via SWNS
The amount of soot in the atmosphere almost halved during lockdowns introduced during the pandemic, according to new research.
It contains disease-triggering particles known as PM2.5s that are emitted by cars and industry.
They can lodge in the lungs and enter the bloodstream, causing fatal lung and heart conditions.
Measures introduced to combat COVID-19, such as closing schools, shops and offices, slashed quantities by 41 percent.
Scientists flew over the UK, Germany, France, Spain, Italy and the Benelux States - a swathe of western, central and southern Europe.
It is hoped behavioral changes fuelled by the crisis will be maintained. They include video conferencing, working from home, less commuting and fewer flights.
Lead author Professor Mira Pohlker, of the Leipzig Institute for Tropospheric Research, said: "I think the pandemic has provided a trigger for a change in trends."
In the atmosphere, the tiny particles also fuel climate change. They warm up due to their dark-colored surface and release heat into their surroundings.
Pohlker said: "Reduced soot emissions as a result of less burning of fossil fuels such as diesel, coal, oil, and wood would also improve the health of millions of people relatively quickly.
"Our measurements and model calculations also show that less soot in the atmosphere makes an important contribution to curbing climate change."
Data was collected by research aircraft HALO (High Altitude and Long range) - in both the horizontal and vertical planes.
The German team compared the results with measurements from July 2017 under 'normal,' pre-coronavirus conditions.
Analyses showed a huge improvement in air quality as a result of the pandemic in the lower troposphere.
Findings were verified with the aid of traffic data and information about fuel consumption during the lockdown periods.
Limited travel accounted for more than three-quarters of the drop. The other factor was ongoing efforts to reduce soot emissions in Europe by three to nine percent.
Pohlker and colleagues are now working on a new study - which also involves psychologists.
They want to find out whether offers such as the German 9-Euro-ticket could actually lead to an enduring change in people's travel behavior.
For 9 euros, you can travel throughout Germany on local or regional trains for a whole month in June, July or August.
Added Pohlker: "As well as a general reduction in traffic, it is also important to provide incentives to use modes of travel with lower emissions.
"In my opinion, heavily subsidized public transport is an important stimulus, and its effect on air pollution now needs to be quantified."
In order to limit the rapid spread of COVID-19, most European countries reacted with significant limitations on travel and economic activities in the first six months of 2020.
The lockdowns reduced the burning of fossil fuels, one of the main sources of soot in the atmosphere, by around a third.
This decrease is attributed to 90 percent less air traffic in Europe and a significant reduction in road traffic.
Emissions in Europe have never fallen so quickly in the decades since the Second World War.
The lockdowns gave scientists a unique opportunity to accurately quantify air pollution over a large area with profiles of the distribution in the lower troposphere. The study is in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics.
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