Nepal | July 15, 2020

Nature takes a breather

Himalayan News Service
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As the world went into lockdown to curb the coronavirus pandemic, the environment got a chance to rejuvenate

Factories were/are closed. Malls, restaurants and stores shut down. Aeroplanes were grounded. A few vehicles plied on empty roads. About 20 per cent of the world were forced indoors as lockdown was imposed. Nobody thought the world could come to a standstill as economy took a backseat.

But it did. And the only positive fallout in whole COVID-19 situation was for the environment.

The smog-layered skies above most major cities were clear blue for the first time in years. This was evident from our terraces and in pictures that were shared on social media. We were offered a stunning view of the Himalayas. The sightings of Mt Everest from Kathmandu Valley as well as Bihar, India also made the rounds on social media.

Meanwhile, with humans indoors, there were news that deer and monkeys are venturing out to explore Asia’s now-empty urban jungles, songbirds were heard in cities, and great leatherback turtles laying eggs on Phuket beaches in record numbers.

Here is how the environment and its biodiversity rediscovered their natural spaces.


Carbon crash

The biggest carbon crash ever recorded was within a few months into lockdown in many parts of the world due to the pandemic. No war, no recession, no previous pandemic has had such a dramatic impact on emissions of CO2 over the past century as Covid-19 has in a few short months.

Multiple sources indicate we are now living through an unrivalled drop in carbon output, the BBC reported in May. But even though we will see a massive fall this year, the concentrations of CO2 that are in the atmosphere and warming our planet won’t stabilise until the world reaches net-zero.

The global expansion of emissions of CO2, from the use of oil, gas and coal has risen massively in the last 100 years. But a number of events have shown that dramatic falls in carbon are possible. Much is made of the financial crash in 2008-2009, but in reality, carbon emissions only fell by around 450 million tonnes between 2008 and 2009. This is much smaller than the fall in CO2 in the aftermath of World War II, which saw a drop of around 800 million tonnes.

It is also smaller than the global recession in the early 1980s. During this period, CO2 went down by around one billion tonnes. But the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 dwarves all of these previous shocks by some distance.

In a few months, demand for energy globally has fallen off a cliff.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) says that the world will use six per cent less this year — equivalent to losing the entire energy demand of India. This will feed through to large falls in CO2. A number of different analyses, including this one from Carbon Brief, show that emissions this year will fall by four to eight per cent, somewhere between two and three billion tonnes of the warming gas.

Researchers say the biggest thing hitting CO2 emissions right now is the reduction in road transport.

Moreover, two new studies, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, found that nitrogen dioxide pollution over northern China, Western Europe and the US decreased by as much as 60 per cent in early 2020 as compared to the same time last year. NASA and the European Space Agency’s pollution monitoring satellites show a 30 per cent drop in nitrogen dioxide in China since the outbreak of coronavirus.


Ganges cleans up

The Ganges is one India’s holiest and also most-polluted rivers. Millions live on its banks across several states. It’s widely considered as a lifeline for many Indians. But it has become severely polluted in the past few decades — industrial effluent is regularly emptied into the waters, as is waste from the millions of people who live alongside its banks. The government has spent millions of dollars to clean up the river, but with very little success.

But the lockdown meant to curb the spread of the coronavirus appears to have helped. Water of River Ganga was been found fit enough for drinking purposes after decades, revealed a recent research by Indian Institute of Technology, Roorkee.

“Since the lockdown, anthropological activities in the vicinity of river have dropped to zero. This has enabled the river to breathe,” said RK Kathait, regional officer of Uttrakhand Environment Pollution Control Board.

Due to the lockdown, 22 drains which disposed sewage into the river, had been sealed too, hence making the water cleaner.

However, chlorination was advised before the water of the river to be used for drinking.


Sightings of rare animals

Travel curbs ranging from a ban on international flights to an appeal to citizens to stay home brought a collapse in tourist numbers in Thailand, but freed up the beaches for wildlife. The country found the largest number of nests of rare leatherback sea turtles in two decades on beaches bereft of tourists because of the coronavirus pandemic, environmentalists said in April.

The 11 turtle nests authorities found since last November were the highest number in 20 years, said Kongkiat Kittiwatanawong, director of the Phuket Marine Biological Center.

“This is a very good sign for us because many areas for spawning have been destroyed by humans,” he told Reuters. No such nests had been found for the previous five years.

“If we compare to the year before, we didn’t have this many spawn, because turtles have a high risk of getting killed by fishing gear and humans disturbing the beach.”

Leatherbacks are the world’s largest sea turtles. They are considered endangered in Thailand, and listed as a vulnerable species globally by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. They lay their eggs in dark and quiet areas, scarce when tourists thronged the beaches. People have also been known to dig into their nests and steal eggs.

Late in March, staff at a national park in the southern province of Phanga Nga bordering the Andaman Sea found 84 hatchlings after monitoring eggs for two months.

Reports from rangers and gardeners in the UK include peregrine falcons nesting in the ancient ruins of Corfe Castle in Dorset, English partridges rootling around an empty car park near Cambridge, and a cuckoo calling at Osterley Park in west London, having not been heard there for 20 years.

David Brown, the National Trust’s ecologist at Corfe Castle, told The Guardian in May: “This is the first time peregrines have nested here since the 1980s. With the site the quietest it has ever been, the great curtain walls are an ideal spot for these birds, which look for isolated and inaccessible places to build a nest. Amongst all the uncertainty, it has been heartening to see nature colonising the landscape in our absence.”

In France, a maritime patrol has filmed remarkable images of whales powering through Mediterranean waters off the coast of southern France. A graceful pair of fin whales was filmed on April 7 in waters off the Calanques National Park, a protected reserve of outstanding natural beauty next to the usually bustling but now locked-down Mediterranean port city of Marseille.

Didier Reault, who heads the park board, told Associated Press, it is “very, very rare” for fin whales to be spotted and filmed at such close quarters in the reserve’s waters.

The whales usually stay further out in deeper Mediterranean waters but seem to have been drawn in by the lockdown-driven freeze on maritime traffic, water sports, pleasure fishing and pleasure craft, Reault said.


Animals come out on the streets

As humans retreated into their homes as more and more countries went under coronavirus lockdown, wild animals were slipping cover to explore the empty streets of some of our biggest cities. Wild boar descended from the hills around Barcelona while deer were nosing their way around the quieter train stations of Nara, Japan.

Indian social media went wild about footage of a stag scampering through Dehradun, the capital of the northern state of Uttarakhand.

Gangs of wild turkeys were strutting the streets of Oakland, California, while a puma turned up in the centre of the Chilean capital Santiago, which was under curfew.

Blandine Doligez, a researcher from the Laboratory of Biometrics and Evolutionary Biology (LBBE) of the University of Lyon 1, specialises in the study of birds. She told Euronews that this government-imposed lockdown was indeed conducive to animals changing their habits to venture out of “their usual bases”.

“Studies carried out in urban areas on bird populations have already highlighted the role of the level of disturbance, such as the intensity of human passage near nests, on different parameters of the reproduction,” she explained.

She noted for instance that birds in cities have been shown to sing more on Saturdays and Sundays because the level of disturbance from humans is lower than on weekdays.

The presence of humans is not the only source of disturbance for birds, she stressed, “the same is also observed for sources of noises, chemical, light pollution”.

A version of this article appears in e-paper on June 19, 2020, of The Himalayan Times.

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