by Rhodilee Jean Dolor
As of April 12, 2020, COVID-19 has already infected over 1.6 million and killed over 100,000 people worldwide. More than just a public health crisis, COVID-19 has hammered the world’s economies, cancelled trips and celebrations and left busy streets deserted. The coronavirus is changing life as we know it, but its impact goes beyond that. The pandemic is changing the very face of planet Earth itself.
As the hustle-and-bustle of life comes to a sudden half because of the pandemic, data reveals that the coronavirus is indirectly healing the damaged planet.
Air pollution levels, for instance, decreased in metropolitan areas as US cities shut down to curb the spread of infection. Data from the Ozone Monitoring Instrument (OMI) on NASA’s Aura satellite, which helps researchers track the atmospheric levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2), revealed massive decline in air pollution over urban areas in Northeast United States.
Nitrogen dioxide is released into the air when fuel is burned by vehicles and power plants. Researchers think that the reduction of the toxic gas in the atmosphere is caused by decreased transportation activities.
NO2 levels in China also significantly dropped as the pandemic stopped the operations of manufacturing plants. Wuhan saw 10 to 30 percent reduction in NO2 when majority of its 11 million inhabitants were confined in their homes.
The drop was observed during the Lunar New Year celebrations, when businesses and factories close to celebrate. Air pollution normally drops during the period, but researchers said the reduction this year is different.
“This year, the reduction rate is more significant than in past years and it has lasted longer,” said Fei Liu, an air quality researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “I am not surprised because many cities nationwide have taken measures to minimize spread of the virus.”
The amount of carbon dioxide released to the atmosphere also declined. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas and is one of the primary drivers of anthropogenic climate change.
From early February to mid-March, carbon emissions in China, a major producer of the planet-warming gas, dropped by 18 percent due to reduced coal consumption and industrial output. The reduction in carbon emission is equivalent to about 250 million metric tons of carbon pollution, or more than half of the United Kingdom’s annual carbon output.
Drop in power demands and the slow down of industrial operations in regions comprising the European Union are also expected to reduce carbon emissions by nearly 400 million metric tons this year. The reduction is equivalent to about 9 percent of the region’s cumulative 2020 emissions target.
Vibrations produced by industrial machineries and cars cause the planet’s crust to move. As people around the world are constrained to stay at home to avoid infection, the standstill is also impacting the Earth’s movement.
Researchers from the Royal Observatory of Belgium in Brussels reported observing a drop in seismic noise, the hum of vibrations in the Earth’s crust due to the world’s transportation networks slowing and shutting down.
Seismologist Thomas Lecocq said that the measures taken by the world’s nations to contain the spread of the pandemic such as closing schools and other public venues as well as banning non-essential travels resulted in human-induced seismic noise to drop by about one-third.Seismologists consider the reduced seismic noise a good thing in that it allows them to better detect small quakes and monitor volcanic activity.
“You’ll get a signal with less noise on top, allowing you to squeeze a little more information out of those events,” said Andy Frassetto, a seismologist at the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology.
Less noise pollution can benefit wildlife. Studies have shown that noise from ships and maritime traffic raises the stress-hormone levels of whales and other marine creatures. This, in turn, can hamper with the animals’ ability to reproduce. Researchers hope that a quieter ocean due to suspended sea travels during the pathogenic-induced global shutdown is a boon for marine life.
“Just pulling those cruise ships out of the water is going to reduce the amount of global ocean noise almost instantaneously,” said Michelle Fournet, a marine ecologist at Cornell University who studies acoustic ecology. “We’re experiencing an unprecedented pause in ocean noise that probably hasn’t been experienced in decades.”
Measures meant to curb the spread of the pandemic result in changes that are deemed beneficial for the planet. Unfortunately, many experts are skeptical of lasting impacts because once the pandemic is over, mankind’s planet-harming activities are also likely to resume.
In China, for instance, the energy usage, air pollution levels, and carbon emissions are now rebounding as the country recovers and resumes its industrial operations.
“We expect the impact will be fairly short-lived,” said Peter Riishojgaard, from the United Nations’s World Meteorological Organization (WMO) in Geneva. “The pandemic will be over at some point and the world will start going back to work and with that, the CO2 emissions will pick up again, maybe or maybe not to quite the same level.”
The world’s governments, however, can still take advantage of a post-pandemic era to make lasting changes that can benefit the planet and its inhabitants. Experts recommend that bailouts should come with requirements that can steer sustainable business practices that will benefit the planet.
“Governments now have to be really cautious on how they re-stimulate their economies, mindful of not locking in fossil fuels again,” said Corinne Le Quéré, from the University of East Anglia.
“They should focus on those things that are ready to go that would lower emissions, like renovating buildings, putting in heat pumps and electric chargers. These are not complicated and can be done straight away, they are just waiting for financial incentives.”