Montana’s Air, Already Good, Hasn’t Improved During Closures

Large metropolitan areas across the United States are a different story

By BRETT FRENCH, Billings Gazette

BILLINGS — While large cities bask in the beauty of less smog created by automobile traffic during the coronavirus pandemic’s travel restrictions, Montana’s air isn’t seeing any significant improvement — it’s already good and remains that way.

“We’ve been looking at this out of curiosity, but we’re really not seeing any appreciable improvement,” said Doug Kuenzli, ambient air quality monitoring supervisor for the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.

April in Montana also tends to be a good month for air quality, he said, so any changes have been statistically insignificant. He said agency personnel might take a more in-depth look at the numbers once they’re back in their offices.

Large metropolitan areas across the United States are a different story. NASA satellite measurements have shown significant reductions in air pollution in Los Angeles and New York City, as well as densely populated India.

“March 2020 shows the lowest monthly atmospheric nitrogen dioxide levels of any March during the (Ozone Monitoring Instrument) data record, which spans 2005 to the present,” according to NASA’s website.

“Nitrogen dioxide (is) primarily emitted from burning fossil fuels for transportation and electricity generation,” the site noted.

News of cleaner air comes as the United States marks the 50th anniversary of the Clean Air Act, a federal law that regulates all sources of air pollution. The American Lung Association, which has a vested interest in cleaner air, reported that prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, “more cities experienced more days with spikes in particle pollution,” with nine western cities reporting the most days ever recorded thanks to smoke from large wildland fires in 2018.

The Lung Association found that 24 of the 25 “most polluted cities were located in the western region of the United States,” affecting more than 53 million people. No. 7 on that list was Missoula, which because it sits in a bowl-like valley is well-known for holding smoke.

Missoula’s high ranking in the Lung Association ratings is not unusual, Kuenzli said. The ALA used an average of the past three years, which included a particularly bad fire season in 2017, to reach its ratings, he said.

However, more western wildland fires have certainly darkened the skies — with last year being an exception in Montana, he said.

“Certainly across the state we’re seeing more days and longer duration,” Kuenzli said, especially as winds carry smoke from large fires in Washington, Oregon and Canada into Montana.

As of April 20 the Northern Rockies Coordination Center was reporting dry conditions in much of Eastern Montana and the Dillon region with otherwise low to moderate fire danger across the rest of the state.

Despite the good news about improved air quality, many people are not breathing easier due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has advocated people maintain at least 6 feet of distance from each other to lessen the chance of contracting or spreading COVID-19. Using face masks or bandannas of some type is being advised to lessen the reach of vaporized droplets that may contain the virus. But what about runners and cyclists?

A recently published, but not peer reviewed, study by Danish and Belgian engineers showed that running or cycling behind someone is more likely to put them at risk than being side-by-side. The engineers showed that the slipstream behind the athlete can carry the virus farther.

Consequently, the researchers suggested that walkers maintain 16 feet of distance and cyclers extend that to 32 feet. These distances, however, were calculated without any wind, which could extend or shorten those distances depending on which way it is blowing. The research also makes a good case for wearing a mask to limit droplet spread.