What do you think of upon hearing the word ‘lockdown’? Is it isolation? Maybe economic crisis? The COVID-19 quarantines have impacted nearly all facets of our lives, bringing with it an abundance of new issues. What often isn’t considered, though, is its positive influences. The global shutdown has translated into many environmentally harmful activities being put on hold. So what has been happening to nature in the wake of the virus?
Initial studies following the onset of the pandemic have demonstrated that lockdown measures have had positive impacts on the environment including cleaner air and water, and wildlife revival.
Due to social distancing measures restricting movement and economic activities, greenhouse gas emissions have dropped to levels not recorded since World War II. The resultant curtailing of pollution has enhanced the global air quality. In Hubei, China, the implementation of strict guidelines to curb the spread of the virus has led to reduced vehicle usage and industrial activities. This has been conducive to a dramatic reduction in the concentrations of nitrogen dioxide (NO₂ ) and particulate matter that have a diameter of less than 2.5 μm (PM 2.5) in the main Chinese cities. Furthermore, two weeks after the UK’s nationwide lockdown was announced on March 23rd, nitrogen dioxide pollution in some cities fell by as much as 60%. NASA revealed that NO₂ pollution over New York and other major metropolitan areas in north-eastern USA was 30% lower in March 2020, compared to the monthly average from 2015 to 2019. The drastic decrease in road traffic and the reduction in power generation have contributed to these developments. NO₂ exacerbates both respiratory illnesses such as asthma and symptoms for heart and lung conditions. Together, nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter are responsible for about 470,000 deaths each year in Europe alone. It is thus safe to say that lockdown measures have alleviated air pollution. As direct consequences of the improved air quality, preterm births, cases of asthma and emergency room visits have diminished, according to the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air.
Additionally, impositions of quarantine have led to a decrease in water pollution in coastal areas. Due to a decline in tourism, there has been a significant change in the appearance of beaches. Many beaches, like those of Acapulco (Mexico), Barcelona (Spain), or Salinas (Ecuador) now look cleaner and show signs of improved water quality.
Moreover, coronavirus lockdowns have enabled wildlife to roam free in nature reserves and parks, and have encouraged them to travel into areas surrounding their natural habitats. Several reports of this behaviour surfaced after the global population began isolating:
- In Istanbul, Turkey, dolphins are inching closer to the banks in the absence of ships, passenger boats, and tankers which generally populate the quays.
- Wild boars are entering urban areas in Haifa, Israel.
- In Albania, pink flamingos are flourishing in lagoons on the country’s west coastline, where numbers have increased by a third to 3,000. Such growth has been caused by the nearby olive oil and leather factories ceasing their operations.
- Cougars have been wandering the streets of Santiago, Chile.
- In Thailand, a herd of 30 dugongs (sea cows) have been captured swimming in the Hat Chao Mai National Park where tourism has ground to a halt. The dugong, also known as sea cow, is categorized as a vulnerable species and can often fall prey to fishing nets or suffer due to water pollution.
Despite the unfavourable implications of COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdowns, it is evident that nature has benefited substantially. International quarantines have ameliorated living conditions for wild animals, mitigated water pollution and ironically, has helped people breathe better by cleansing the air. Only time will tell whether or not these short-term impacts will prove advantageous in the long run, but for now, we can perhaps derive some peace of mind by observing the ongoing environmental recovery which serves as a beacon of light in these trying times.