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Yes, SoCal’s Air Is Insanely Clear Right Now (And We Have A Good Idea Why)

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The intersections of the 5, 10, 60, and 101 freeways near downtown Los Angeles during what is usually rush hour. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)
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We were driving on the 134 Freeway in the hills above Eagle Rock, making our way to Glendale when I gasped.

“Is that… the ocean?!?” I asked my wife. Past the rise of Griffith Park, where the thing that usually catches my eye is the observatory dome, I swear I saw blue waters.

I’m far from the only person to notice the skies above Southern California are ridiculously clearer these past couple weeks.

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The South Coast Air Quality Management District keeps track of how our skies are doing. If you look at their interactive map showing the region’s air quality index (AQI), you’ll likely be seeing all green right now.

Transportation-related emissions — which includes planes, trains and private automobiles — are behind 80% of our region’s air quality problems, Philip Fine, deputy executive officer for AQMD, told me recently.

As more restrictions on daily life have been put in place to limit the spread of COVID-19, we’re driving way less, so it makes sense that vehicle emissions are down. But just how much is that contributing to our cleaner air?

Researchers expect that the dramatic dropoff in private vehicle commuting — plus the slowdown of truck traffic at our local ports in the early weeks of the pandemic — had a notable impact on our improved air quality. But it’s too early to accurately measure that impact, Fine said, thanks to that series of rainstorms we got at the same time our commuting and social lives started to taper off.

March is typically “one of our cleaner months,” Fine said, given the weather systems that typically roll through as winter turns to spring. Here’s how he explained it:

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"Those are the conditions that tend to clean the air anyway, absent any type of reduction in emissions. So it's been really difficult for us to tease out whether we're actually seeing the effect of the lower emissions, or we're just seeing our typical clean air that we get on these stormy days, and it's too early to tell which factor is more important, or what we can attribute the clean air to; it's probably a combination of both."

Fine said it’ll be a week or two before AQMD researchers have a scientific sense of just how much our reduced commuting has helped clear the air.

For reference though, check out this map from NASA showing an eye-popping change in air pollution in China before and after the government there shut down transportation and slowed the economy.

We’ll bring you an update when AQMD knows more.

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