The environmental impact of the pandemic might not have been something that crossed your mind before. Whether it has or hasn’t, I think it is important to consider how COVID-19 has shown us all not only what we value (spending time with friends, for example) but also how we interact with and shape the world around us.
People have recently taken to the internet expressing their happiness that the earth seems to be “resetting” as humans remain in their houses. Is there any truth to this though? Have dolphins really returned to Venice? While the latter sadly isn’t true, the answer to my first question is both yes and no. In this article I’ll clarify occurrences in China and Italy and explain what industry experts say is really true about them. So, how much of an impact has COVID-19 had on the environment? Keep reading to find out.
Subject #1: Canals in Venice
While tweets like these may not have been a result of mal intent, they are unfortunately among the most popular tweets that perpetuate the spread of inaccurate information. However, the fact that Venice’s canals are more clear than before is indisputable. The beautiful water is evident through many
photos such as this one:
Furthermore, it has been verified that most of these pictures were taken in Venice where users claimed they were taken.
The confusing part of this observation is why exactly the water is so clear. While the popular belief is that a lack of pollution is the cause, the real reason is the lack of motor transportation. The motors on the boats that travel down the canals stir up all the material at the bottom of the canals, causing the water to appear murky. Unfortunately, this means that when quarantine is lifted, canals will most certainly return to their murky color.
You might be wondering, well, doesn’t the lack of motor transportation also mean there is less pollution? Technically, yes. Although, as I explained above, it is not the reason for clear canals because the change was so large to have occurred so quickly. To really cause a decrease in pollution levels, the canals would have to remain unused for a very long time, likely longer than the pandemic will last. I will go into more detail on pollution when discussing events in China later on.
The other topic of discussion about Venice is dolphins. Sadly, dolphins haven’t actually returned, experts say. In fact, many photos of “Venetian dolphins” circulating on platforms such as Twitter were actually not taken in Venice but in other places nearby and even across the world. Some of the most popular dolphin pictures were found out to have been taken in Sardinia which is hundreds of miles away from Venice in the Mediterranean Sea.
Another possibility is that dolphins and other animals may have seemed to have returned because the clearer water in Venice makes them more visible. Again, they did not “reappear” because of an environmental reboot.
While there is a need to post uplifting things during difficult times like now, there are other ways than spreading fake stories! Be careful of this when posting on scrolling through social media. But don’t allow stories that turn out fake to sadden you because there is still so much real good in the world waiting to be found :)
Subject #2: Air Pollution in China
So much has been written about the clearer and cleaner skies in China. But what is true about these stories? First I have to mention that, while probably obvious, certain news sites tend to be a little more factual in comparison to tweets or other social media posts... meaning you should choose your news source carefully! Words of warning aside, let’s look at what has been going on in China’s skies recently.
Experts say that the sky over many cities in China has become significantly cleaner due to fewer methods of transportation running and fewer factories being open. Factories and power plants have largely closed down for the time being in an effort to get employees to stay home and practice social distancing. According to NASA, “levels of nitrogen dioxide, a pollutant primarily from burning fossil fuels, were down as much as 30%” in China. However, this is only in certain places. Shanghai and Wuhan are among the largest cities to be experiencing such blue skies, but Beijing hasn’t been as lucky. Beijing actually experienced a spike in pollution mid-February because local weather patterns trapped air in the region.
Quick digression: Cities in the US are showing decreased air pollution as well. Emissions-detecting satellite images have shown declines in pollution over Los Angeles, Seattle, New York, Chicago and Atlanta, to name a few (data collected and reported by the New York Times).
Air pollution in China’s large cities proves deadly for its inhabitants. It is estimated that the pollution contributes to more than 1 million premature deaths each year. Polluted air and the particles it carries can enter the bloodstream through the lungs and is often linked to asthma attacks, heart attacks and respiratory problems. Therefore, experts say that even such a short-term reduction in air pollution can make a difference. The key word is “short term”. Much like the Venice canals, it is expected that conditions will return to their previous state shortly after quarantine ends. Unfortunately, conditions could even worsen because factory operation in particular is expected to increase in order to offset the losses the economy experienced during the quarantine.
Looking both at Italy and China makes it clear that social distancing is not a “sustainable” way to keep the environment healthy. Furthermore, by no means can the coronavirus be said to be beneficial to health because of such temporary changes: it is important to keep in mind that the short and long term health and economic impacts of this crisis will be far more devastating. Yet while they might not be able to serve as sources of optimism, these events are important and should open all of our eyes to how our actions impact the environment. On that note, take a look at the tweet on the right. I thought it was really cool because it reminded me that the changes in the environment occurring right now can serve as great motivation for us to make them long-lasting instead of temporary. In the meantime, focus on yourself and your family! I hope you all are staying safe and happy :)
For more information, check out these articles:
Why China's Air Has Been Cleaner During The Coronavirus Outbreak (NPR)
Nature is taking back Venice': wildlife returns to tourist-free city (The Guardian)