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NASA images show China pollution decline due to coronavirus slowdown

Satellite images have shown a dramatic decline in pollution levels over China, which is "at least partly" due to an economic slowdown following the outbreak of the new coronavirus, NASA said on Sunday.

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Images by NASA and the European Space Agency show how levels of nitrogen dioxide - a noxious gas emitted by motor vehicles and industrial facilities - plummeted in February compared to January, before authorities imposed lockdown measures.

NASA scientists said the reduction in nitrogen dioxide levels was first apparent near the city of Wuhan, where the outbreak began, but then spread across the country.

The US space agency noted that the decline coincided with transport and business restrictions, and as millions of people went into quarantine. "This is the first time I have seen such a dramatic drop-off over such a wide area for a specific event," Fei Liu, an air quality researcher at NASA, said in a news release.

Scientists had previously observed gradual declines in nitrogen dioxide levels during the 2008 global financial crisis, and more localized reductions during the Beijing Olympics the same year.

China's Lunar New Year celebrations in February have been linked to such decreases in pollution levels in the past, but they normally rebound once the celebrations are over.

"This year, the reduction rate is more significant than in past years and it has lasted longer," Liu said.

China has recorded nearly 80,000 cases of the novel coronavirus since the outbreak began in December. More than 2,900 people have died from Covid-19 worldwide, most of them in China.