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USA - New Projects Explore Connections Between COVID-19 and the Environment

While scientists around the world are confined to their homes during the COVID-19 pandemic, Earth observing satellites continue to orbit and send back images that reveal connections between the pandemic and the environment.

“Satellites collect data all the time and don’t require us to go out anywhere,” Hannah Kerner, an assistant research professor at the University of Maryland in College Park, said.

Kerner is among eight researchers recently awarded a rapid-turnaround project grant, which supports investigators as they explore how COVID-19 lockdown measures are impacting the environment and how the environment can affect how the virus is spread.

The newest group of projects includes six that are looking to satellite images to help reveal how COVID-19 lockdown measures are impacting food security, fire ecology, urban surface heat, clouds and warming, air pollution and precipitation, and water quality and aquatic ecosystems. Two projects are exploring how the environment could be impacting how the virus is spread by monitoring dust and weather.

NASA’s Earth Science Division manages these projects that find new ways to use Earth observing data to better understand regional-to-global environmental, economic, and societal impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Counting crops during COVID

This year was looking to be a relatively normal year for crops until the pandemic and associated lockdown policies happened. Reduced air and ground travel caused the demand for ethanol to plummet, which caused corn prices to decline. Lockdown policies also made it harder for officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to travel to farms and collect information about crop planting, progress, and conditions.

The subsequent lack of public information about crops caused uncertainty and volatility in agricultural markets and prices as growing seasons progressed. “Markets want to know how much of a specific kind of crop to expect,” Kerner said.

Kerner and her team are looking to satellite data from NASA’s and the U.S. Geological Survey’s Landsat, ESA's (the European Space Agency) Copernicus Sentinel-2, NASA’s Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) aboard the Terra and Aqua satellites, and Planet’s satellites to help supplement USDA’s information.

“We’re using satellite data and machine learning to map where and which crops are growing,” Kerner said. Specifically, they’re monitoring key commodity crops, which are corn and soybeans in the U.S. and winter wheat in Russia.

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