There was a turkey in our backyard this morning. It was scratching around the the wood pile looking for whatever small animals might be living there. Despite diving for my phone, I missed getting a photo of it, so here’s a picture from somebody else. Living in an urban area as we do, it’s pretty rare to see turkeys outside big wooded parks. Assuming we’re not just being more observant, the lockdown-driven lack of cars and foot traffic have given this bird an opportunity to expand its territory, or at least its hours of operation.
Then, a few minutes ago, in broad daylight, a herd of deer just loped across a major intersection. It was a surreal sight, akin to the goats in Wales, the civet in India, the mountain lions in Chile, and the peacocks in Spain.
There are plenty of reports of unusual wildlife sightings as a result of the emptying of urban areas due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Some of them, like the infamous report of dolphins in the now crystal clear canals of Venice are fakes. But plenty of real reports show that the environment has started to change almost immediately. As soon as traffic stopped, air pollution in India’s major cities improved dramatically. Nature is always poised to respond and the planet has systems to orchestrate its renewal – if only humanity would allow it.
The Black Death & the Atmosphere
This phenomenon isn’t new. As far back as the 13th century, the Black Death had a palpable impact on the environment. From 1347 to 1351, the Bubonic Plague ravaged Europe, afflicting victims with festering dark pustules, fever, nausea, and death in days or even hours. Everyday existence ceased completely as the Black Death spread along medieval trade routes. Over the course of a few years it claimed an estimated 20 million lives and reduced the European population by a third.
In 2017, a team of researchers published findings asserting that the plague had the unexpected impact removing lead particulate from the air for the first time in more than a millennium. Mining and smelting of lead had been going on for at least the thousand years prior, but in the brief period between 1349 and 1353 the plague closed the mines and the air quickly cleared.
Another study, published in 2006, used pollen samples to show a substantial reduction in pastureland, the consequent infilling of hardwood forest and the potential for impact on global atmospheric CO2. However, there also appears to have been a positive feedback loop between deforestation, climate change, and the ferocity of the plague’s effects. This study used a clever combination of tree ring data and geographical information on outbreaks to suggest that there was no permanent pool of pestilence in Medieval Europe, but climate change due to deforestation allowed it to keep being reintroduced through ship rats along trade routes.
World War II & Atlantic Fish
The major factor in both our current pandemic and the 13th century plague is the lack of the pace and intensity of human activity. Anything that disrupts that is likely to release pressure on ecosystems. A number of studies, including this one, have demonstrated a complex but generally positive effect on marine fish stocks from the cessation of fishing between 1939 and 1945.
The same study, which analyzed data between 1928 and 1958, showed that a few short years after the war was over fish stocks were depleted to at least the levels they had been before. A sobering statistic to reflect on: The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports that since 1961 the annual global growth in fish consumption has been twice as high as population growth and global fish production peaked at about 171 million tons in 2016. With capture fishery production relatively static since the late 1980s, aquaculture has been responsible for the continued growth in supply for human consumption.
One of my favorite books is The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman. It starts from the dystopian question “What would happen to the planet if all humans suddenly disappeared?” The answer is varied and depends where you are. But, while I fervently hope this question is never answered, it does present a picture that in many ways is similar to what we’re seeing now. Both give the same salutary lesson, a warning that has been voiced countless times before this: the number of people on Earth, multiplied by the impact that each of us makes, must be addressed if we are to contemplate long-term survival as a species.
On the verge of Earth Day’s 5oth anniversary, I hope this pandemic gives us pause to examine how our current activities allow our children and grandchildren the ability to make choices in the future.