Sea turtles usually have a rough time finding a safe place to lay eggs on warm, sandy beaches. But with the coronavirus pandemic keeping beachgoers away this year, the reptiles are multiplying fruitfully. Researchers in Florida said that by Saturday, they had counted nearly 80 nests on the state’s beaches compared to 39 by the same date last year and just 11 the previous year. In Thailand, spotters have found 11 leatherback turtle nests, the highest recorded number in two decades, The Guardian reported.
“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,” Kongkiat Kittiwatanawong, the director of the Phuket Marine Biological Centre in Thailand, told the British newspaper.
Increased animal sightings, reduced smog, and better water quality have emerged as silver linings to humans’ decreased activity during the COVID-19 outbreak. Though global shutdowns are having a visible effect on the natural world, often for the better, it’s too soon to say whether any of those changes will last. And the economic slump could make it harder for countries and businesses to make more sustainable decisions in the long term.
Not long after California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, issued a statewide shelter-in-place order in March, photos started surfacing on social media showing a much clearer Los Angeles skyline than the typical smog-obscured view. (But the shutdown may not be completely responsible: The region had a bout of stormy weather about the same time that helped clear the air). Throughout the country, fewer cars on the road and decreased industrial activity have improved air quality. NASA reported that levels of nitrogen dioxide—released by burning fossil fuels—in the northeastern United States went down by 30 percent in March 2020 compared to the average in the same month of previous years.
The United States wasn’t the only country that noticed a difference. Air pollution levels in Madrid, Milan, and Rome from mid-March to mid-April were down 49 percent. Compared to the previous five years, March air pollution decreased by 46 percent in Paris, 38 percent in Sydney, and 26 percent in Rio de Janeiro, according to NASA measurements.
India has seen perhaps the most dramatic changes to its environment. The country has one of the highest rates of pollution-related deaths in the world—more than 2 million people every year, according to a Global Alliance of Health and Pollution report from December. On the day the country’s strict lockdown began on March 25, the average PM 2.4 level (a measurement of airborne particle pollution) decreased by 22 percent, and nitrogen dioxide levels dropped 15 percent, according to the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air.
Perhaps even more notable, India has seen a significant improvement in water quality in major rivers due to less industrial runoff and litter. The cleanliness of the Ganges River has gotten so much better that the country’s pollution monitoring body said it was fit for swimming in some areas. And the water quality in the Yamuna River, which runs along the east side of New Delhi, also has improved.
Sadly, social media posts have exaggerated much of the good news, particularly when it comes to animals returning to urban areas. National Geographic noted that a popular post about dolphins and swans returning to the canals of Venice failed to mention the creatures regularly visit the area where the video was taken. Elephants commonly visited a village in China even before social distancing, according to a local newspaper. Animals have ventured out into much emptier streets in some areas: monkeys in Thailand, birds on Peruvian beaches, rats in the gutters of New Orleans, goats in a Welsh town, and coyotes in downtown Chicago.
While the pandemic may have clarified how human activity affects the natural environment, it also brought into focus the massive costs of reversing those effects. Cleaner air and water came alongside widespread unemployment and a significant economic downturn. And the slump has dealt a hard blow to some of the industries working toward sustainability. Shutdowns have halted manufacturing for solar panel companies in California, New York, and New Jersey, and executives say the income cuts and layoffs could do lasting damage to the green industry. And with the price of fossil fuels dropping so low, new, innovative energy companies will find it more difficult to compete.
Lasting changes may not occur on a global level as much as they will on a personal one. More and more people are finding time and motivation to go outside and spend time in God’s creation. Some teens are exploring their outdoor environment for the first time and discovering that the world around them is better than the one on their smartphones. Maybe more time in creation will do more to encourage Biblical stewardship than statistics and shutdowns.
John Stonestreet of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview noted on his Breakpoint podcast that studies showing outdoor activity help mental health make Biblical sense. “We were made to marvel at this beautiful world, placed in a garden by God to enjoy His handiwork,” he said. “That some young people are rediscovering that handiwork, even in the midst of so much bad news, is a good thing.”