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Photograph: Michael Juliano

L.A.’s air pollution has plummeted since the beginning of March

Michael Juliano
Written by
Michael Juliano

Oh, so that’s what color the sky is supposed to be.

Angelenos have been urged to say at home for a little over a week now, and many of us began working from home even before that. Air travel has come to a crawl, and activity at the ports has slowed significantly. All the while, L.A. started looking like the Pacific Northwest with what felt like an endless few weeks of rain in March. The not-so-unexpected result? Unprecedentedly clean air.

Take a look at the Environmental Protection Agency’s AIRNow archives: L.A.’s air quality has been labeled “good” (meaning the levels of air pollution in the atmosphere pose little to no health risks) nearly every day in March and as far back as the last week of February. On only three days in March did the region’s air quality dip into “moderate” levels, in which the levels of pollution may be of slight concern to sensitive populations.

UPDATE (4/3): With March now behind us, we can definitively say that the air quality last month was the best that L.A.’s seen in at least 40 years. The EPA’s AirData archives stretch back to 1980. Take a look through them and you’ll see that there’s no run of green, “good” air that can compare to last month—comparing March either year-over-year or to any other month. (You’ll also see just how awful the air was in the ’80s, and how much better it’s been since then.)

Air quality from 1980 to 2020

Courtesy U.S. EPA AirData

UPDATE (4/7): After a very wet Sunday evening and Monday morning, L.A. had the cleanest air of any major city in the world on April 6, according to a live ranking by IQAir.

According to an interview on Curbed with Coalition for Clean Air policy director Bill Magavern, better air this time of year (when we see the most rain) isn’t entirely uncommon. You can see that when comparing this March’s pollution levels to March 2019; we had almost exactly half the amount of rain last March, but still had a run of pretty clean air. But that month also saw slightly smoggy skies, something we’re not seeing right now.

March 2020 air pollution

Courtesy AirNow

March 2019 air pollution

Courtesy AirNow

But Magavern says the steep dip in traffic has definitely reduced emissions. And for that, we’ll point to just a couple of months ago, when in December 2019 we were dumped with a similar amount of rain—but still saw smoggy skies.

December 2019 air pollution

Courtesy AirNow

(Oh, and in case you were curious. Here’s what the summer looks like. Gross.)

August 2019 air pollution

Courtesy AirNow

Of course, this all isn’t quite a cause for celebration: The skies are so clear because we’re all hunkered down at home, anxious and scared about our health, our jobs and our friends and family. As much as we’d love to hike or go to the beach under these clear, sunny skies, we can’t for everybody’s safety. And you probably already know the unfortunate truth: Once we are allowed to go back to work again, air quality will just return to normal (that according to a statement from the South Coast Air Quality Management District in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune).

But here’s hoping in the not-so-distant future we can again celebrate L.A.’s lack of pollution—and under much better circumstances that time.

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