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COVID-19 May Have Temporarily Lessened Our Carbon Footprint

eaweed can be seen in clear waters in Venice as a result of the stoppage of motorboat traffic.
eaweed can be seen in clear waters in Venice as a result of the stoppage of motorboat traffic.

“Life, uh, finds a way,” as Dr. Ian Malcolm said in Jurassic Park.

It certainly did between February and April as populations were forced to self isolate indoors, local governments issued “shelter-in-place” orders, and public gatherings were being discouraged, all thanks to the rapid spread of COVID-19 across the globe.

Governments in China, parts of Europe, and most recently in the United States, are preparing to ease quarantine restrictions and allow life to return to normal.

Over the last few months residents have noticed changes in the landscape, wildlife and air quality around the world.

While it is still too early to prove a direct correlation between the changes that have taken place in the environment and the COVID-19 virus, the world is taking note of the changes that are slowly appearing amid the pandemic. 

First Signs of Change

The Government of Italy, in early March, imposed emergency measures restricting the movement of roughly 16 million people throughout northern Italy, including major cities like Venice and Milan. Soon after, restrictions were extended to include the whole of Italy and citizens were asked to avoid all unnecessary movement.

Italy was the first country in Europe to enter lockdown in early March. Tourists have fled, vendors have ceased operations, and residents have isolated themselves inside their homes.

One of Italy’s largest tourist attractions are the winding canals in Venice. Year-round the city is packed with tourists eager to enjoy the gondola’s. However, with the city at a standstill locals in Venice have noticed that the water in the city's canals has become much clearer, with small fish visible and swimming around.

Residents have taken to social media to upload photos to a Facebook group called Venezia Pulita (Clean Venice).

eaweed can be seen in clear waters in Venice as a result of the stoppage of motorboat traffic.
Credit Andrea Pattaro/AFP / Getty Images
eaweed can be seen in clear waters in Venice as a result of the stoppage of motorboat traffic.

The Venice mayor’s office told CNN that the change is not linked to improved water quality. 

"The water now looks clearer because there is less traffic on the canals, allowing the sediment to stay at the bottom," a spokesman said.

"It's because there is less boat traffic that usually brings sediment to the top of the water's surface.“

Transparent water does not necessarily make it cleaner, due to a lockdown-related reduction in boat traffic, which typically pushes sediment to the surface and makes the water murkier.

However, lack of tourism and quarantine measures have appeared to help improve a number of climatological factors in Italy. The clarity of the waters in the canals is just a sign of how nature is intended to be with the absence of human contact. Lack of debris from tourists and near-zero boat traffic contributed to the waters becoming clear and only time will tell if this trend continues.

Signs of crystal clear waters had many others wondering if there are other changes occurring in the ecosystem. In March, various posts were shared across social media claiming the return of wildlife around Venice, such as dolphins and swans.

“An unexpected side effect of the pandemic: Water’s flowing through the canals of Venice is clear for the first time in forever. The fish are visible, the swans returned,” a Twitter user said on their post showing crystal clear waters in the canals and a swan.

Another Twitter user also showed the clear waters with fish swimming around as well as a viral clip showing dolphins beside a boat.

“Venice hasn’t seen clear canal water in a very long time. Dolphins showing up too. Nature just hit the reset button on us.”

The dolphins were videoed swimming off the coast of the Italian island of Sardinia in the Mediterranean Sea. However, some took to social media to argue that dolphin sightings in the area were not a new phenomenon, as a 2017 videodemonstrates.

National Geographic pointed outthat swan sightings in the Venice canals were authentic, but not described accurately.

“The swans in the viral posts regularly appear in the canals of Burano, a small island in the greater Venice metropolitan area, where the photos were taken,” National Geographic reported.

While the COVID-19 pandemic may not be a long term event, it at least is showing small changes in the environment from humans self isolating and distancing themselves. Wildlife may not, at this time, be more pronounced in areas like Venice but residents are noticing small changes, such as the change in water clarity.

Only time will tell if other small changes will be noted with the absence of human presence.

Water quality and the return of various wildlife may still be under debate. However, there is one climatological component that has changed for the better with COVID-19 lockdowns, not just in Italy, but worldwide -- Air quality.

“The air, however, is less polluted since there are less vaporetti and boat traffic than usual because of the restricted movement of residents,” according to the Italian spokesman.

Air Quality in China and the United States

In China, the reduction in traffic has resulted in less air pollution. 

NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) pollution monitoring satellites have detected a significant decrease in nitrogen dioxide (NO2) over China. The evidence is partly related to the economic slowdown following the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus.

NO2 in the air comes primarily from the burning of fuel and forms from the emissions of automobiles, power plants, and off-road equipment, according to theUS Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

NO2 values in China from January 1-20, 2020 (before the quarantine) and February 10-25 (during the quarantine).
Credit NASA
NO2 values in China from January 1-20, 2020 (before the quarantine) and February 10-25 (during the quarantine).

The United States followed a similar pattern to that of China for the month of March, with decreased levels of NO2.

Images taken over the first three weeks of March show less NO2 levels over parts of the United States than the same time frame last year.

NO2 is noticeably lower in concentrations in states such as California, Washington and Illinois.

NO2 is not a greenhouse gas, however, researchers are hypothesizing that greenhouse gases a likely experiencing a similar drop in the atmosphere as lockdowns across the world shut down factories and reduced automobile traffic.

In an attempt to decrease the rapid spread of COVID-19, economic activity has been hugely limited, resulting in a decline in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said in March.

A study conducted by Severe Weather Europe says the world typically sees an increase in CO2 emissions in the colder months in the Northern Hemisphere. However, this year has been different.

“We are noticing an interesting development, as the carbon dioxide levels are currently increasing at a much slower rate than expected,” the authors write.

“Looking at the last 12 months of carbon dioxide data from Mauna Loa observatory (in Hawaii), we can see the carbon dioxide rise last year and this season, which shows slower growth than expected.”

Kris Karnauskas, a climate scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder, wrote on Twitter: “I’m not certain this is caused by #COVID19 but there have only been two years since 1975 when CO2 rose less since the first of the year.”

Health and Air Pollution

Skies have begun to clear worldwide over the last few months. Residents in Punjab, India have reported the air clearing significantly that the snow peaks of the Himalayas could be seen after decades of thick air pollution.

Punjab is one of many locations worldwide experiencing clear skies and less atmospheric pollution. IQAir, a Swiss-based air quality technology company, compared measurements of the deadliest air pollutant found in the atmosphere before and after the COVID-19 outbreak in 10 major cities — “fine particulate matter (PM2.5).”

New Delhi recorded a 60% fall of PM2.5 from levels in 2019; Seoul, South Korea a 54% drop; China’s Wuhan a 44% decrease.

Los Angeles, Calif. experienced its longest-ever stretch of clean air which miraculously met the United Nation’s recommended air quality guidelines. Air quality datashowed that the city experienced its longest stretch of "good" air quality since at least 1995.

NO2 and other particulate matter have been linked to heart and lung disease. The EPA and the World Health Organization have identified fine particulate matter, PM2.5, as the leading cause of deathfrom air pollution.

Air pollution kills an estimated 7 millionpeople annually worldwide. In China alone 1.1 million deaths per yearare recorded and costs the Chinese economy $38 billion.

Earlier this month Stanford Earth Sciences Professor Marshall Burke projected that two months of COVID-19 lockdown had saved the lives of 77,000 Chinese children and elderlyfrom air pollution alone.

Researchers hypothesize that air pollution may also affect the mortality rate of COVID-19. Early analyses have identified hypertension as the leading simultaneous chronic disease (comorbidity)in patients who have died from COVID-19.

Researchers have linked air pollution, particularly NO2, to hypertension. Additionally these pollutants are known to impair lung function.

“Breathing air with a high concentration of nitrogen dioxide can irritate airways in the human respiratory system,” according to the EPA.

“Such exposures over short periods can aggravate respiratory diseases, particularly asthma, leading to respiratory symptoms (such as coughing, wheezing or difficulty breathing), hospital admissions, and visits to emergency rooms. Longer exposures to elevated concentrations of nitrous oxide may contribute to the development of asthma and potentially increase susceptibility to respiratory infections.”

Despite the clearer skylines, scientists warn against celebrating any short-term benefits from the air pollution drop. Scientists remind the population that pollution levels will rebound once global restrictions lift. 

Air Travel

Each day aircrafts leave behind trails of contrails over North America. Contrails are created when water vapor leaves a jet engine and freezes instantly due to the cold temperatures in the high altitudes of the air.

Contrails, and the aviation industry in general, have long been criticized for its large environmental footprint. A 2011 study suggests that the net effect of contrails contributes more to the warming of the atmosphere than all of the CO2 produced by planes since aviation began.

With less air traffic due to the spread of COVID-19 there may be an increase in clear skies.

On September 11, 2001 aircrafts were immediately grounded for three days following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

“I remember walking to and from my office (in the days after the attacks) and thinking how incredibly clear the skies were,” Andrew Carleton, a geographer at Pennsylvania State University, later wrote.

David Travis, a geographer at the University of Wisconsin, and another colleague of Andrew Carleton, about a year after the attacks, argued that thin clouds created by contrails reduce the range of temperatures.

Other studies have also noticed changes in the atmosphere when air traffic was affected.

In 2011, British scientists wrote that an air raid in May 1944, involving over 1,400 aircraft, measurably lowered daytime temperatures in England.

NASA scientist Patrick Minnis in 2004 argued that a steady increase in in cirrus cloud cover over the United States, about one percent per decade, was likely due to increasing air traffic-induced contrails.

"This study demonstrates that human activity has a visible and significant impact on cloud cover and, therefore, on climate. It indicates that contrails should be included in climate change scenarios," Minnis said.

Due to the spread of COVID-19, Airlines worldwide have lost revenue and have been forced to cut flights, services and other air travel commodities.

The following are a few examples of strategies that were implemented by select airlines for the month of March:

cut 200 flights per day through March, out of roughly 1,300 a day in normal times.

American Airlines made efforts to slash its international flying by 75% and cut domestic capacity by 20%.

In March, Southwest Airlines cut capacity by 20%. Delta Air Lines went further and cut capacity by 40% in the coming months.

Across Europe, Governments imposed fight bans which have closed Europe’s skies to all but a tiny number of repatriation and rescue flights. Ryanair, Europe’s largest budget airline, announced that its entire fleet would likely be grounded for all of April and May.

In mid March, India commercial airlines were to cease domestic flightsaccording to a civil aviation ministry spokesman. Cargo flights were exempt from the order.

In the coming weeks and months after the pandemic it may become apparent that temperatures may have been affected by the grounding of so many airlines. 

What the Future May Hold

COVID-19 has continued to spread rapidly worldwide since it was first detected in Wuhan, China back in December of 2019. Over the last few weeks, governments have begun to ease quarantine restrictions and populations have slowly started to return to normal everyday life. Pollution levels will likely return quickly as humans return to their normal activities.

On May 19, researchers published an international study surrounding the change in carbon emissions in the Journal of Nature Climate Change. The daily carbon emissions declined 17% between January and early April, compared to average levels in 2019. Researchers speculate it could decline an addition 4.4 to 8% by the end of the year. This would mark the largest annual decrease in carbon emissions since World War II.

“Unfortunately, past crises suggest that emissions will rise again," said Rob Jackson, study co-author and professor at Stanford University’s Earth Science Systems department.

Jackson compared the COVID-19 pandemic to the last global crisis, the 2008-2009 Great Recession, where global emissions decreased 1.4% in 2009. A year later in 2010, the emissions shot back up 5%.

The COVID-19 lockdown has led to cleaner air, but will do little to address the issue of air pollution in the long run. When lockdowns end, scientists, like Jackson, are fearing that air pollution could return with a vengeance.

Air pollution is expected to return quickly once businesses resume work and people return to their normal routine. Factories and automobiles will resume producing noxious gases into the atmosphere, waters will return to their murky consistency in the Venice Canals, and sights of mountains will begin to fade behind smog. This is already being noticed with NO2 levels already rising over China as lockdown orders begin to ease in the county.

The United Nationsand environmental campaignersare urging governments to “build back better, to invest in the future not the past”, to ensure that our global recovery has sustainable legacy.

Jackson says that there was one crisis that did alter carbon emissions in the past -- the oil shocks in the 1970s. When oil shortages increased gas prices dramatically, this led manufacturers to make the decision to design and sell smaller automobiles. Solar and wind power were also heavily relied on as an alternative to oil.

Researchers and scientists will continue to monitor the changes that have taken place since COVID-19 began and how the environment may continue to change as populations are released from their quarantines.

One thing is for sure though: the quarantine measures imposed upon the population gave the Earth a brief time to heal and change before our very eyes.  

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