Is Lockdown Helping Wildlife and the Environment?

The world has been plunged into a global lockdown, thanks to the outbreak of Covid-19. Whilst this is negatively affecting the quality of life of people around the world, it is giving nature a much needed break. But is lockdown helping wildlife and the environment? Is it making a difference?

Is wildlife returning to urban areas?

There have been plenty of images online of animals supposedly returning to wild areas. Naturally, they have quickly gone viral – we want some good news in times like this.

Unfortunately, the majority of these images have been shown to be fake.

Images of dolphins in the Venice canal were actually taken in Sardinia, where this is a regular sight.

A light-hearted post showing elephants supposedly breaking into fields and getting drunk on “corn wine” were also shown to be fake by the local forestry bureau.

Oceans are getting quieter

Moving onto fact rather than fiction, recent reports from Ocean Networks Canada have found that the oceans are getting quieter.

A number of seabed observatories have found a “significant drop” in low-frequency sound associated with ships near the port of Vancouver, Canada.

They have found a consistent decrease in noise since 1st January 2020, amounting to a decrease of 4-5 decibels in the period up to April 1st 2020.

The Guardian reports that economic data from the port showed a drop of around 20% in exports and imports over the same period. This reduction in shipping traffic is a much needed break for marine wildlife.

The reduction in air pollution during lockdown

Scientists are currently racing to determine the effect a global lockdown has had on air pollution levels around the world. There are some studies out there already, but this complex area of study is sure to have conflicting reports.

On a positive note, data from NASA has shown a dramatic reduction in airborne nitrogen dioxide levels. Nitrogen dioxide is primarily emitted by burning fossil fuels for transport and generation of electricity – a reduction in these levels is a good indicator of changes in human activity.

The European Space Agency has also released data showing the reduction of nitrogen dioxide levels across Europe, most notably in northern Italy – coinciding with its intensive lockdown period.

“Although there could be slight variations in the data due to cloud cover and changing weather, we are very confident that the reduction in emissions that we can see coincides with the lockdown in Italy causing less traffic and industrial activities,” said the ESA.

Observations by NASA of the northeast USA show a 30% decrease in nitrogen dioxide levels. Whilst the data can be affected by adverse weather conditions, NASA has said that “March 2020 shows the lowest monthly atmospheric nitrogen dioxide levels of any March during the OMI (Ozone Monitoring Instrument) data record.”

The average nitrogen dioxide levels in March seen from 2015-2019 in northeast USA.
Image credit: NASA
Average levels in March 2020 are shown to be reduced by 30%.
Image credit: NASA

One study, yet to be peer-reviewed, has estimated that this reduction in global air pollution levels has prevented around 7,400 premature deaths during the first two weeks of lockdown. The study used satellite data and a network of more than 10,000 air quality stations.

The study also extrapolated this data and, assuming that the lockdown deviations from social norms are maintained throughout the entirety of 2020, estimated that around 780,000 premature deaths and 1.6 million paediatric asthma cases could be avoided across the world.

However, the authors did acknowledge that this state of global lockdown is not sustainable – and we are now seeing measures beginning to lift in a number of countries. Regardless, the potential health benefits of reductions in air pollution are clear.

What happens after lockdown is over?

This is the question everyone is asking. Personally, I believe we will go back to business as usual. That is a fear many of the conservationists and scientists that I follow online share.

Whilst this period of calm for the environment is good in the short term, I doubt it will make much difference in the long term. If anything, the world could see a spike in emissions whilst the economy plays catch-up.

In an ideal world, governments and individuals around the world will see this as a major wake up call. Science has long been predicting a global pandemic, and this could be the first of many if we do not change our ways.

In a similar way to how Coronavirus has taken hold, climate change and the increase in global average temperatures may see disease vectors present in areas where they were never previously found. A study by Public Health England provided insights into how tropical diseases could become present in temperate areas, such as the UK.

With this in mind, hopefully we will see a movement to modify day-to-day human behaviour. If harnessed correctly, this is a chance for the global population as a whole to be mobilised towards positive change.

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