Climate crisis: in coronavirus lockdown, nature bounces back – but for how long?

Jonathan Watts @jonathanwatts

Fri 10 Apr 2020 02.40 AEST

European countryside – changed forever?

The environmental changes wrought by the coronavirus were first visible from space. Then, as the disease and the lockdown spread, they could be sensed in the sky above our heads, the air in our lungs and even the ground beneath our feet.

While the human toll mounted horrendously from a single case in Wuhan to a global pandemic that has so far killed more than 88,000 people, nature, it seemed, was increasingly able to breathe more easily.

As motorways cleared and factories closed, dirty brown pollution belts shrunk over cities and industrial centres in country after country within days of lockdown. First China, then Italy, now the UK, Germany and dozens of other countries are experiencing temporary falls in carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide of as much as 40%, greatly improving air quality and reducing the risks of asthma, heart attacks and lung disease

For many experts, it is a glimpse of what the world might look like without fossil fuels. But hopes that humanity could emerge from this horror into a healthier, cleaner world will depend not on the short-term impact of the virus, but on the long-term political decisions made about what follows.

Australia suffers not only the loss of coral reefs.

Research just in reveals that extreme events from climate change (2011-2017) have damaged 45% of Australia’s coastal habitats, including coral reefs, mangroves, kelp forests and seagrass.  These habitats provide food and shelter for a huge range of marine and estuarine species, including large fish, turtles and dugongs.  Vital for fisheries, these key habitats are also used and much loved by local and international visitors. 

The rate of their loss is extremely worrying, especially given that these changes have essentially occurred during an increase in global temperature of 1°C above the preindustrial era. As we go towards warming of 1.5oC, these serious impacts are more than likely to be amplified.

Extreme weather likely behind worst recorded mangrove dieback in northern Australia (Photo: Norm Duke)

Much of the damage has been driven by unusually long and hot underwater heat waves.  Other changes have been due to knock-on effects.  For example, large amounts of kelp forests have disappeared from the south-east coast of Australia due to the spread of sea urchins and tropical grazing fish species as higher latitudes warm.

The future is of concern.  The authors used ecosystem models to evaluate long-term outcomes from changing extreme events, which are predicted to become more frequent and intense with return times diminishing rapidly.  In the latter case, this means that many ecosystems are failing to recover in time prior to the next extreme event.

Check out the peer-reviewed study here.