This 50th Earth Day, humans are locked inside and nature is temporarily ascendant

Peter Weber

As Earth Day turns 50 on Wednesday, you don't have to imagine no pollution. Amid all the human suffering and death from the COVID-19 pandemic, "an unplanned grand experiment is changing Earth," The Associated Press reports. "As people across the globe stay home to stop the spread of the new coronavirus, the air has cleaned up, albeit temporarily," sometimes with dramatic effect.

There are blue skies over New Delhi for the first time in years and Jalandhar residents saw the snow-capped Himalayas for the first times in decades. Pollution levels were down double digits in cities all over the world. Animals roamed freely through parks and cities — pumas in Santiago, Chile; coyotes in downtown Chicago and San Francisco; goats overrunning a town in Wales.

The animals were always there, Duke University conservation scientist Stuart Pimm tells AP, but they are shy around humans. Sea turtles worldwide seem to be nesting and hatching much more successfully without humans around, says David Godfrey at the Sea Turtle Conservancy. "There's some silver lining for wildlife in what otherwise is a fairly catastrophic time for humans."

"That doesn't mean the comeback will last," Hope Corrigan writes at Quartz, with photos of nature triumphant. "Scientists warn that the effects of the economic shutdown caused by COVID-19 are temporary." And greenhouse gasses can stay in the atmosphere for a century or more, "so the pandemic shutdown is unlikely to affect global warming," AP reports.

Climate change "wasn't really on the radar for most people in 1970," climate reporter John Schwartz tells The New York Times. But since that first Earth Day 50 years ago, "the air over the U.S. is much cleaner, and so is the water we drink in most parts of the country. We don't use DDT or asbestos."

The coronavirus pause "is giving us this quite extraordinary insight into just how much of a mess we humans are making of our beautiful planet," Pimm says. "This is giving us an opportunity to magically see how much better it can be."

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