If the planet has a memory, Earth Day 2020 on Wednesday, April 22 may be filed away as the most significant instance of the annual event since its inception decades ago.
The coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19, have taken billions of people off the streets worldwide and slashed international travel. And all those people staying home seem to be a collective weight off the shoulders of the global environment in certain observable ways.
The Himalayas are visible from parts of India for the first time in decades, animals like kangaroos and goats have more freedom to roam, and life everywhere just seems to be breathing easier.
NASA and the European Space Agency first saw the effect via satellite data (above) that shows China’s dramatic drop in nitrogen dioxide emissions, which mostly come from vehicles, after lockdowns were put in place in February.
The European Space Agency’s Copernicus Sentinel-5P satellite also made it easy to see similar reductions in air pollution over northern Italy after lockdowns were put in place there a few weeks later. The below animation shows the fluctuation of nitrogen dioxide emissions between Jan. 1 and March 11.
“The reduction in emissions that we can see, coincides with the lockdown in Italy causing less traffic and industrial activities,” said Claus Zehner, ESA’s Copernicus Sentinel-5P mission manager, said in a blog post.
Similar impacts are evident in the suddenly pristine air quality around Los Angeles, which is notorious for its smog from millions of commuters.
One place it’s easy to see the environmental change with your own eyes by simply taking a walk around town is the famed canal city of Venice.
The water in the canals, which have a reputation for being a bit stinky at times, is currently clear with plenty of fish — and even jellyfish — swimming and swans hanging around enjoying the unusual urban peace and quiet:
Some wildlife that have become dependent on humans as a source of food are now becoming a bit more rowdy and bold in this new reality.
Deer who live in Japan’s Nara Park are used to being fed by park visitors, but with that meal ticket suddenly dried up, they’ve left the park and taken to the streets of the city to look for food.
Similar and uglier scenes have been recorded in places like Lopburi, Thailand, where local monkeys previously able to rely on tourists for food have mobbed the town in search of sustenance, sometimes brawling each other in the process.
Shutdowns are likely to impact the amount of carbon in the atmosphere as well.
According to an analysis by Lauri Myllyvirta at the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air, in the weeks that followed the end of Chinese New Year in early February the coronavirus lockdown kept activity in the country from resuming like it normally would. The resulting reductions in coal and crude oil burning led to a 25 percent decrease in CO2 emissions from China when compared with the same period in 2019.
“This amounts to approximately 100 metric tons of CO2, or 6% of global emissions over the same period,” Myllyvirta writes.
It’s likely that many of these dramatic and sudden shifts will be recorded in the planet’s memory — in geological records, tree rings and other natural records that will outlast both this pandemic and the rest of us.