IT’S BEEN A WHILE since I’ve posted. Life has meandered through a Twilight Zone stretch and plenty has happened, that’s for sure. It’s high time to get back in the saddle (cliché accepted), grapple with the past, assess the present and take a glimpse at the future. In short, it’s time to reboot.
Posts in this blog are anchored in environmental issues and from time to time, general musings about the creative process, road trips, hiking adventures or basically any random thoughts the author feels like sharing in the blogosphere. When I named this blog “Changing Tides” over two years ago I never imagined the magnitude of changes about to take place. There’s definitely a lot of rough water ahead.
On the upside, new possibilities can take root in the ashes of cataclysmic events. Hopefully we’ll get past the worst of the pandemic this year. In the aftermath, other major challenges are on the horizon, specifically concerning the environment. Lessons learned from the outbreak can provide insights about how to successfully negotiate what lies ahead.
When the coronavirus hit the world, scientists quickly learned how the effects of air pollution came into play. Evidence emerged that polluted air made COVID-19 much more lethal, and tiny particles known as PM2.5 sharply raised the chances of dying from the virus. PM stands for particulate matter (also called particle pollution), a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets found in the air. Particles like dust, dirt, soot, or smoke (ex. Californian wildfires), are large or dark enough to see with the naked eye. Other particles are so small they can only be detected using an electron microscope. PM2.5 are fine particles that are inhaled, with diameters of 2.5 micrometers and smaller (a human hair is about 70 micrometers in diameter making it thirty times larger than the largest PM2.5.)
These PM2.5 particles infiltrate the body, promote hypertension, heart disease, breathing problems and diabetes, all of which increase complications in coronavirus patients. They also weaken the immune system and fuel inflammation in the lungs and respiratory tract. PM2.5 particles are the world’s deadliest air pollutant, and underline the fact that polluted skies create a huge health risk.
What if the air was miraculously scrubbed clean, void of these nasty little particles? The most compelling environmental photos taken during the lockdown focused on the world’s greatest cities. The images captured cityscapes washed clean due to the lack of human activity.
Air pollution dropped to unprecedented levels across the world as major cities and countries imposed lockdowns. Los Angeles, with some of the highest smog levels in the U.S. due to auto exhaust pollution, experienced a dramatic drop in nitrogen levels. Catalina Island could be seen from Griffith Park, a view that most Angelenos have never experienced. In the Himalayas, residents in Jalandhar could see the snow-capped mountain peaks more than one hundred miles away for the first time in decades. New Delhi recorded a 70% drop in both PM2.5 and the harmful gas, nitrogen dioxide. Like PM2.5, nitrogen dioxide (NO2) is emitted by burning fossil fuels—mostly in industry, vehicles, and domestic boilers. Areas in Germany, the United Kingdom, Czechia and northern Italy saw large reductions in nitrogen dioxide.
The declines were only temporary but the good news is that they illustrate how fast pollution is reduced when cutting back the burning of fossil fuels. The environment temporarily changed, and quite dramatically. Wild animals roamed the streets, smog-filled skies turned blue and waterways became clearer.
When the world gets past the worst of the pandemic, we can’t afford to fall back to old norms and “business as usual.” According to a Harvard study, air pollution kills more than 100,000 Americans every year. The brief experience of cleaner air due to widespread shutdowns offers a lesson for how a new, cleaner world can be built after the pandemic.
It’s time to reboot.
Clearer water, cleaner air: the environmental effects of coronavirus