The COVID-19 pandemic that has now reached over 200 countries and territories around the world has impacted every aspect of society . Millions of people have been sickened and thousands have died, economies have been hit, and life as we once knew it has come to a near-complete stand-still.
And while humanity has been collectively holding their breath, it appears that this pandemic has offered nature a chance to take one long, large, inhale. Climate and environmental scientists around the world have been watching and studying intently since the outbreak began, and the changes that have resulted from the sudden decrease in human activity have been nothing short of remarkable.
The Earth is Quieter
Paula Koelemeijer is a seismologist living in London. She has a small seismometer in her apartment, which despite its size, can detect a variety of movements ranging from the trains rattling by near her house, to earthquakes happening far away.
Since the UK government implemented stricter social distancing rules in March, Koelemeijer has watched the vibrations produced by human activity decrease suddenly and significantly. With fewer trains, buses, and people out and about, the sounds and vibrations associated with public life have all but vanished.
“It’s very literally reflecting a slowdown of our lives,” said Koelemeijer .
She is not the only one who has noticed this change. Seismologist Thomas Lecocq at the Royal Observatory of Belgium in Brussels, saw an immediate drop in activity the day after Belgium began a nationwide lockdown. Currently, seismic activity in Brussels resembles that of Christmas day, rather than a typical weekday.
Now, seismologists in the US, France, New Zealand, and other countries around the world, who study seismic signals from the Earth’s interior, have been reporting that without the usual noise produced by human activity, it has become easier to listen.
“Normally we wouldn’t pick up a 5.5 [magnitude earthquake] from the other side of the world, because it would be too noisy, but with less noise, our instrument is now able to pick up 5.5’s with much nicer signals during the day,” Koelemeijer said .
Air Pollution has Decreased
Since cities, and in some cases, entire countries, around the world have gone into lockdown, the air quality has improved significantly. This is because without cars, trucks, buses, and power plants running like usual, there have been much lower concentrations of nitrogen dioxide, the most common air pollutant, into the atmosphere.
Satellite images released from NASA and the European Space Agency in March showed a dramatic difference in the air quality over China from the previous month. According to China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment, the average number of “good quality air days” in February increased by 21.5 percent over the previous year .
A similar trend has been seen in Europe, showing strong reductions in nitrogen dioxide concentrations over cities like Paris, Madrid, and Rome .
This is significant because air pollution is incredibly detrimental to human health. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), air pollution kills an estimated seven million people across the globe annually. This is primarily because of an increase in strokes, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer and acute respiratory infections, caused by breathing in polluted air .
Stanford professor Marshall Burke, who works in the Earth-system science department, estimated that the reduction in particulate matter as a result of the pandemic over the last two months has likely saved the lives of four thousand young children and 73 thousand elderly adults in China alone .
While this news appears to be a bright spot in an otherwise grim situation, the amount of pollution that has been saved over the last couple of months is not enough to make a significant long-term difference in the global climate change crisis.
Joseph Majkut, the director of climate policy at the Niskanen Center, in Washington, D.C., believes that things will likely return to normal once this is all over.
“We’re not solving climate change by having a global pandemic,” he said .
Noise Pollution has Decreased
For people who live in metropolitan areas, noise pollution can be a significant problem. Prolonged exposure to excessive noise can cause a number of problems, including stress, poor concentration, productivity losses in the workplace, communication difficulties and fatigue from lack of sleep, cardiovascular disease, cognitive impairment, tinnitus and hearing loss .
Since cities around the world have been all but shut down, they have also become much quieter. Erica Walker, a public-health researcher at Boston University, has taken a decibel meter around the city with her and has noticed noise reductions close to thirty decibels .
Rebecca Franks, and American living in Wuhan, described that while the city was in quarantine, she heard birds for the first time since living there.
“I used to think there weren’t really birds in Wuhan, because you rarely saw them and never heard them. I now know they were just muted and crowded out by the traffic and people,” she said .
People and scientists around the world have been remarking on social media about all of the sounds they could never hear before, such as the creek of old doors. Some welcome this quiet, while others find it stress-inducing, as it is emblematic of the global crisis happening around them.
Ocean Noise has Decreased, Too
It’s not just the cities that have quieted down. Without cruise ships sailing across the oceans, marine life is experiencing an unprecedented and much-appreciated calm.
“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 who studies acoustic environments. “We’re experiencing an unprecedented pause in ocean noise that probably hasn’t been experienced in decades.” 
According to researchers, noise from ships and other traffic on the oceans can increase the levels of stress hormones in marine animals. Short, loud blasts of sound can cause physical damage to underwater animals, while more persistent background noise, like that from ships, can affect their behavior, including their ability to communicate and to feed .
Fournet says that as the Northern Pacific Humpback whales begin to move north toward Alaska with their calves, it will be much quieter than in previous years.
“This will be the quietest entry that humpback whales have had in southeastern Alaska in decades,” she said .
The Impact of Human Activity
These positive effects are not meant to be celebratory- the tragic loss of human life that has resulted from this pandemic can by no means be made up for through environmental benefits- but it does demonstrate in a very profound way the impact we have on our environment on a day-to-day basis.
When this pandemic finally begins to cease, there will no doubt be a rush to get back to normal, but it is incredibly important that we observe the way the changes in our activity benefited our environment, and use that information to return to activity in a way that is less detrimental to our planet.
Countries around the world are proving what we can accomplish when band together to work for a common goal, and once this pandemic begins to cease, if we can use the same energy in the fight against climate change, our world might have a fighting chance.
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