8 + 1 EFFECTS OF COVID-19 ON THE ENVIRONMENT
It is curious to think, but above all it is overwhelming how just two months of “stoppage” in global economic activities can cause such serious and alarming economic, social, health and environmental consequences.
If only this event is causing so many consequences, then let us imagine which and how many effects the activity of man may have caused during centuries and centuries of so much forced transformation and change of the planet.
No one doubts that man’s action on our planet has been inconsiderate and atrocious; wars, genocides, poverty, inequalities and injustices of all kinds, as well as destroyed ecosystems, extinct species, irreversible climate change, which, who knows where it will lead future generations. And precisely because future generations will be faced with the effects of the latter, we do not see it as a priority now.
To this end, to study and prevent events such as this of COVIC-19 and others, NASA has made its satellites available, which throughout the period of the pandemic have not stopped orbiting the Earth, collecting data and images that they will serve as a study to reveal the changes suffered in different explorations of the environment, thus revealing their connection with COVID -19.
For that reason, NASA’s Earth Sciences Division has financed eight specific research projects to determine the relationship of COVID-19 with the changes produced in the environment in those months of production “stoppage”, restrictions and quarantine. Let’s see what they are:
THE SPREAD OF THE VIRUS, MONITORING TRAVELING DUST
The virus could have traveled trapped between the dust particles, driven by the wind, and have reached other areas of the planet.
This is precisely what the research of Professor Pablo Méndez-Lázaro of the University of Puerto Rico in San Juan deals with. His team is in charge of examining whether the COVID-19 virus could have traveled through the African dust, carried by the wind from the Sahara desert, which each season between May and August crosses the Atlantic Ocean and reaches the shores of the Caribbean.
The epidemiological study combines a series of parameters, such as data from some clinical and vaccine development studies, social and environmental data together with the National Meteorological Service, in addition to the data and images offered by MODIS and the Monitoring System of the Copernicus Atmosphere of the European Commission.
According to data from Professor Méndez-Lázaro, Corona virus cases increased dramatically during the period of the African dust event, when the event called “Godzilla” occurred in June 2020. The CALIPSO, GOES-East and other satellites observed and commanded data on its unusual range, an impressive column of dust, which measured up to 6-7 km in altitude, although when it reached the Gulf of Mexico the column had descended to 3.5-4 km.
Although this event has been shown to depress the formation of hurricanes and provide vital nutrients to the Amazon rainforest, this time it was feared that it would also bring the COVID-19 virus. In any case, until there are more data to prove their cause-effect, these facts are only correlative and do not imply causality.
INSECURITY AND DISTRUST IN THE FOOD SECTOR
As on many other occasions when a crisis arises, it is not understood very well, or at least we inexpert people find it hard to understand at first, why the crisis in one economic sector indirectly affects another completely different one. Of course, globalization is always blamed, which in fact is the favorite pretext used in recent years, a very complex socio-economic process without a doubt, in which the will of governments and their economic interests are also behind it.
The fact is that the least favored sectors and especially consumers always pay the price. In this case, it was the corn industry that had to pay the consequences of the limitation of air travel. At first glance, we will not deny that it is difficult to understand the relationship between them, but in reality everything is well connected.
The decrease in flights reduced the consumption of ethanol, a chemical compound that, mixed with gasoline, is used as fuel, not only for cars but, precisely, also for airplanes, which also consume a lot of it. Its elaboration is obtained from the fermentation of certain sugars of vegetable origin, sugar cane, molasses, sorghum, beet, in the USA corn is used precisely, who would have expected it?
Furthermore, limitations in mobility made the monitoring work that was regularly carried out on farms to collect data on the crop impractical. A check that the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) performs on farms every season to predict the progress and conditions of corn crops. The lack of these data and information on corn production, caused uncertainty inagricultural markets, and devalued prices.
The monitoring of crop fields through satellite images have always been of great help each season to be able to analyze and control the growth of crops, both corn and soybeans, and even that of wheat grown in winter in Russia. On this occasion, it will offer the possibility of endorsing the information that the USDA has presented in this regard, offering concrete data on the abandonment or less of the cultivated fields, and their growth during the pandemic.
AT RISK THE SO-CALLED “ECOLOGY OF FIRE”
Fire has been used since ancient times as an instrument to manage and control the exuberance of forests and fields. In the southeastern US, controlled burning also has deep historical roots.
This practice dates back to Native Americans, and for many it is part of the local culture. The native Indians adopted it from the first Europeans who settled there. According to them, the controlled burning of forests and fields provided improvements in many aspects. Being mostly cattle breeders in those days, this practice provided a more suitable and conducive environment for this activity, since it improved the conditions and the abundance of forage and animals in freedom, it was also a good system for the control of pests and it also favored the visibility of the surroundings and its entrances.
Over time this practice has taken hold as a custom and common practice, and has evolved for other purposes. For example today, prescribed burning in many communities is done for safety reasons. Keeping the forest clear of excessive vegetation in the so-called “fire breaks” is a practice that avoids and prevents the expansion of a potential and accidental forest fire. This controlled burning of small spaces between large areas of forests allows a road to be kept free of fuel in the event of a fire, which prevents or minimizes the spread of fire and allows access to fire services.
It is evident that this practice, although prescribed, that is, officially allowed and declared convenient, like any that produces combustion, is not deprived of emissions of smoke and toxic substances into the atmosphere, but it is allowed, it is assumed that for a greater good.
It is also true that in some communities, mainly in Europe, other less polluting and more natural methods have been chosen, although also less conventional, for example, the use of animals such as mules and donkeys, which in some communities exist in abundance and they do not know what to do with them, since at present they are animals of little or no commercial importance. In this case, the task entrusted to these animals is to eliminate by eating the plants that are growing in the firebreaks, and thus keep them free of plants, that is, they carry out a totally ecological and natural maintenance. Everything is to better conserve nature and not use chemicals or fire to burn the herbs.
Controlled burning is also done to get rid of excessive build-up of woody material after commercial logging. Branches and debris that are not profitable for the timber or firewood trade. In this case, the pollution caused is less justified, but it is agreed to eliminate this accumulation that is considered a potential fuel in the event of an accidental fire, and obviously for economic interests.
Another justification for the prescribed burning of forests has been the controversial and contradictory environment of quail hunting, which in many private and public plantations in the southern US is considered a popular and even “ecological” tradition.
A custom that comes from afar, perhaps also brought by Europeans, so fond of recreational hunting. A controversy that is still present today, and that has both supporters and refractory ones. According to the gregarious of this practice, the burning of forests and fields favors the habitat of the quail, its hunting object. Therefore, there is a whole strategy and planning around the burning method both in times and ways so that a habitat is regenerated again, more favorable for quail to abound. In this way, the plantations become perfect places of recreation for many fans of hunting this bird.
For a time it was considered a disrespectful practice with the environment, and even not very patriotic, that destroyed the habitat of many other animals and plants that were victims of inconsiderate flames, to favor only a morally debatable and unnecessary hobby. The complaints and opposition against this practice were felt by a large part of the public opinion. However later, some biologists endorsed that this practice not only favored a habitat for the much coveted quail, but also for other species that were not of interest for hunting, such as the red-crested woodpecker, the tortoise, etc, so again it recovered its practice until it was gradually accepted.
All fires, both prescribed and accidental, cause the emission of polluting gases and fumes into the atmosphere, in addition to the loss of part of the biodiversity of the pre-existing ecosystem. The subsequent regeneration of a habitat destroyed by fire is a natural process that always occurs after the destruction of the previous one, recovering the nutrients deposited in the environment. It is clear that the new habitat can favor the growth of some interesting species ecologically or for hunting, that is why they call it “fire ecology”, but can this really justify the destruction of the previous ecosystem? Or is it simply one more justification that overlaps only unnecessary banal interests.
As we have seen arson to boost biodiversity and reduce fuel loads in forests, it is a common activity in many places. With the COVID-19 restrictions, these practices were stopped, leaving forests and areas susceptible to possible fires. Without custody or protection in this regard, they have been exposed to greater risks of uncontrolled and more serious forest fires.
Thanks to the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) of the Suomi NPP satellite of NASA and NOAA, together with MODIS, traces and records of the fires produced in the United States in that period are being carried out, in order to determine their relationship with the COVID-19 restrictions.
In particular, the research scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Ben Poulter, and his team are determining how the effects of the Coronavirus restrictions have affected the biodiversity that depended on the specific burns that were made and how the accumulation of one excessive vegetation, and given rise to a fuel knead ready to be engulfed in flames uncontrolled.
In addition, the distancing measures caused the temporary closure of some fire service sites in western states, which has meant greater risk and greater difficulty in fighting fires in these states.
Although it would be logical to think that reducing at least prescribed fires has probably contributed to improving air quality, research suggests that the effect of both maintenance prescribed fires not carried out as well as those accidentally caused on those dates could have affected the chemistry of the atmosphere, altering air quality and the percentage of total carbon dioxide, among other pollutants.
Indeed, at the moment, it is not known to what extent this is true, so we will have to wait for the results of these studies.
POLLUTION AND ITS RELATION TO THE ABUNDANCE OF RAIN
Another curious factor is that the decrease in air pollution during confinement in the COVID-19 period may have contributed to the decrease in rainfall in the western United States.
That pollution accelerates the process of formation and fall of rain, is something that we had already observed in the phenomenon of acid rain.
The humidity formed by the condensation of steam combines with nitrogen oxides, dioxides or/and sulfur trioxides, generated and expelled into the atmosphere by power plants, factories, vehicles, heating, etc. since they burn derivatives of petroleum or coal that contain sulfur.
In contact with water vapor, toxic gases or aerosols are formed that generate nitric, sulfurous and sulfuric acids. The heat generated by these gas emissions contributes and accelerates the ascent of the clouds towards colder layers of the atmosphere. Its subsequent cooling in these higher and colder layers increases condensation due to the effect of cooling, which, together with the greater weight added by the toxic particles in suspension accumulated inside, make the rain precipitate faster and more abundantly.
Hence, pollution contributes to increased rainfall. Then they fall on the surface of the earth in the form of acid rain, destroying all the vegetation it encounters and polluting not only breathable air, but also lakes, rivers and seas, producing acidification of waters and destruction of aquatic life both of flora and fauna existing in that.
Furthermore, the corrosive action of its polluting and toxic agents is deposited both on the surfaces and on the earth itself, forming part of the sedimentation of the land.
The studies of Professor Gabriele Willarini, and Wei Zhang, of the University of Iowa, try to understand this relationship, if it exists, on the basis that the humidity in the atmosphere that is later transformed into precipitation in the form of rain or snow, it condenses more easily around aerosols or dust particles, so a decrease in polluting particles could have been the cause of the decrease in rainfall in those areas.
The validity or less of this correlative fact could give indications of how to preserve natural water resources and how the Coronavirus is impacting the natural environment.
CHANGES IN THE DISTRIBUTION OF URBAN HEAT
According to the investigations, some urban surfaces have suffered changes in terms of heat, as a result of the COVID-19 restrictions.
Well, the truth, I never would have guessed, it seems that the fact that there were fewer cars in circulation during the COVID-19 period could be the cause that some surfaces have heated up more than necessary, suggesting that in this way the restrictive measures have contributed to global warming of the earth’s surface and climate change.
Well, if we all thought that the reduction in road traffic during the pandemic would have reduced pollution somewhat, in addition to the heat that the cars emanate from their operation and their hot gases. We have all thought that at least in that aspect the period of confinement would bring something positive. Now it seems apparently that it has not been like that, and that also the cars circulating happily through the city contribute to keep the atmosphere cool. Obviously it is not exactly like that, it is about the change that has occurred in the distribution and arrangement of urban heat.
It is being investigated by a scientist at the NASA Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley, Christopher Potter, who together with his team are assessing the environmental impact that the decrease in car traffic has had during the weeks of restrictions.
Apparently the lack of cars on the road, and consequent parking during that period, has caused a change in the way in which some surfaces absorb and reflect sunlight and consequently the infrared heat generated, which call the flow of thermal heat.
Cars in circulation, better than parked ones, could somehow “prevent” the excessive absorption of sunlight, (perhaps due to their reflective surfaces in motion), and as a result of the heat that would have been generated by that solar radiation when a surface is hit. In short, the reflective surfaces of moving cars could be helping to distribute solar radiation and the infrared heat they produce, while the accumulation of parked cars in a certain place has changed (it is not yet known whether for the worse or for good), the way in which the surfaces of buildings, roads, etc. they absorbed that heat.
The research tries to determine if this change in the general heat flow of the affected urban areas, in this case in the urban area of San Francisco Bay, has contributed to a more or less healthy environment for the population of millions of people who lives there.
On the other hand, it must be taken into account that many studies already confirm that cars are harmful to the environment, due to the pollution and heat generated by the entire process and energy consumption that is produced for their manufacture, operation and non- renewable discharge.
Although stopped cars can contribute a higher percentage of urban heat in some places, it does not mean that it is better that they are in operation. Because much greater is the damage they do to the environment. Perhaps it would be the case to propose better options in public transport that contains such an excessive number of vehicles in general.
“SYNTHETIC” CLOUDS AND THEIR RELATIONSHIP TO AIR HEATING
During the period of confinement of COVID-19, restrictions on air travel have been sharp, consequently the condensation clouds or contrails produced by the exhaust gases ofaircraft engines have decreased.
During those weeks the sky was clear of those stretched clouds that you see when a plane just passes. According to Dave Duda, one of the researchers along with William Smith of NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, “contrails are the only clouds that we produce ourselves.” The main effect of these cloud-forming gases is the warming of the surrounding atmosphere.
The investigations in this project try to determine how the limitation that existed in air flights has contributed to the decrease of this type of contrails, and therefore to a decrease inthe progress of the global warming process of the atmosphere.
To do this, they are using an algorithm to determine the number of stelae of this type that occurred in the previous period and during the epidemic. In addition, other data provided by MODIS are being investigated to determine the optical properties of these peculiar stelae. The results are expected to help better understand the process by which these contrails reflect light and how they absorb energy around the surface and the surrounding atmosphere and below them.
At the moment it is known that they occur mostly when the atmosphere is cold and humid enough, so they are more frequent in winter and spring. By determining with greater precision the conditions in which this type of condensation trails that heat the atmosphere, and therefore not beneficial, occur, alternative routes for the aircraft could be planned, adjusted in altitude so that they do not occur, a similar procedure that already it is currently used to prevent turbulence.
CHANGES IN WATER QUALITY OF AQUATIC ECOSYSTEMS
Another interesting project funded by NASA for years now, is located in the largest coral reef in the northern hemisphere, located off the coast of Belize.
Fortunately there are still some mangrove forests, sand cays, lagoons and estuaries, where some species of fish survive, sea turtles, manatees and even the American marine crocodile, many of them in danger of extinction. One of the ecosystems with the greatest biodiversity in the Atlantic Ocean.
When the pandemic occurred, there was what Professor Robert Griffin, in charge of the reef health study at the University of Alabama at Hustsville, called “a natural experiment“.
The decrease in tourism in the area has made it possible to collect other significant data regarding the polluting sources produced by human activity in the area.
The deterioration of the reef is mainly caused by polluting residues from both urban and agricultural activity, necessary to host the tourism that the place receives.
Waste that ends up in the water and negatively impacts the ecosystem where coral reefs live, and a particular biodiversity that is only found in this type of ecosystem. In particular, it affects the composition of the water, in relation to the concentration of nitrogen and phosphorus, and consequently, in general, in terms of the quality of the water.
PREVENT THE SPREAD OF THE VIRUS
The fear of a second wave is evident in all the countries of the world, especially now that the winter period is approaching, with which there is fear of an exacerbation of the health effects of the virus, which would again cause economic uncertainty and social alarm.
The study, in this case by Professor Yulia R. Gel of the University of Texas at Dallas, and Huikyo Lee, a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and their collaborators, is based on the potential link of aerosols and COVID-19.
For them they are collecting meteorological data offered by the Atmospheric InfraRed Sounder of the Aqua satellite and Cross-track Infrared Soundere of the Suomi NPP satellite, together with the data from MODIS they will track the dynamics of the virus spread in time and space.
In particular, they use geometric algorithms and topological data, which allow tracing patterns of virus transmission. Stereotypes that can be promoted by certain sectors of the population, that is, according to age, gender, ethnicity or even economic income, as well as the aforementioned environmental factors.
These advanced measurement methods and instruments provide comparing data and considering options beyond the conventional ones, allowing a greater success in the investigation. The software generated by this survey will largely make it possible to predict the seasonal progression of COVID-19 not only on a proximate scale, but on a global scale. A decidedly useful tool, which we hope will provide the expected prevention.
EFFECT 9 (8 + 1)
THE DECREASE IN TOURISM CAUSES THE ABANDONMENT OF ANIMALS
The decrease in tourism around the world has not only made a loss in the economy in this sector, but also in the lives of many animals whose existence was linked to it. Therefore, both the legal and illegal trade in exotic animals has also been affected by the COVID-19 restrictions.
The activities related to tourism and animals are many and varied, a tourist attraction that few are capable of rejecting. Who has not taken a photo with a small macaque or snake cobra in Marrakech, or has not been able to resist taking a starfish out of the water to take a selfie, even if that will lead to the asphyxia of the animal for those endless minutes.
In the US and Africa you can find farms where you can ride on top of some scared ostrich, and what to say about elephants in Asia, in addition to serving as an unnecessary, but exotic transport vehicle, they also play soccer and paint pictures to sell to the tourists.
Swimming with stressed dolphins is an attraction in many aquariums, as is taking photos with sharks or caged tigers. All of them, recreational activities focused on entertaining tourists and making the economy and commerce that exist around the exploitation of these animals grow, of course, without taking into account that it is to the detriment of the dignity and quality of life of all those animals.
The fact is that in the period of confinement and limitations on travel, tourists either have not been able to reach their vacation destination, or have had to leave quickly without the possibility of being able to take the animal they had bought. Consequently, many animals that were previously used for sale or recreation by tourists, have been without “work”. They have become a useless object that did not bring benefits to their owners, so they have been rejected and repudiated by them.
Consequently, many animals that had been mutilated, pulling off their fangs, claws, wings, etc. to make them harmless and more easily manageable, and who had lost their natural instinct due to being born in captivity or due to the forced training received, and contact with man, they have been abandoned in the surrounding environment, given away, or given to centers or people available with the intention of offering them a makeshift refuge.
Soon many have found themselves in a habitat unknown to them, devoid of their natural tools to adapt and survive. On the other hand, the receiving ecosystem has had to face the presence of this unexpected number of misfit animals and outside their natural habitat. As a consequence many animals have succumbed to absurd, undignified and unnecessary death. In view of these events that occurred during the COVID-19 period, the change in the biodiversity of some ecosystems has been evident.
At the same time, many animal shelters, natural parks, zoos and private improvised animal owners have been overwhelmed by the avalanche of these unwanted and abandoned animals. Unable to foresee the scope of this event, they have quickly been deprived of the few means available to them.
The limited resources available to meet the immediate needs of these animals are insufficient. Medical cures, enough space for adequate accommodation, food, supervision, etc. Personnel and means, without which the life of these animals is destined to a fateful end. In addition, the lack of subsidies for this emergency in this regard, is only hindering a more successful resolution, causing desperate situations, such as the slaughter of animals due to the impossibility of supporting them.
Although there are no official open projects, like the previous ones financed by NASA, the facts mentioned show the extent of the effects that this event is causing. Its importance is vital and evident, both for the ecosystems that have been affected, and for the economy that was nourished by this business, which will now seek new profit alternatives.
This is the case in some Asian countries, such as Thailand, the restrictions caused by COVID-19 have caused situations similar to those described, places where activities related to the exploitation and trafficking of animals is the order of the day.
If someone is still not convinced of the damage that non-domestic animal trafficking does, and the business that exists around tourism with them, this event could at least show them more clearly the useless suffering that this activity causes, and how we are all responsible of the destruction or less that we cause when we go on vacation to some exotic country and we become excited with participating in an attraction where some animal in captivity is exploited for our banal entertainment.
“If there is no demand, there is no business” is a phrase from Frank Cuesta, renowned expert on exotic wildlife. He is a specialist in herpetology and poisons of snakes. His extensive experience in the recovery and cure of animals subdued and abused, and in their acclimatization and preparation for later release, has amply demonstrated his commitment constantly to defend and protect and defend the rights of animals. A veteran for many years in this field, he works and lives in Thailand, so he knows well the life of animals of the exotic Asian fauna, and their connection with tourism and the interests that revolve around them. Like others, he is another clear direct testimony of how the COVIC-19 restrictions have affected the fauna, in this case exotic- tourist, of this area in particular.
We have to understand the importance ofthe actions of each singular person. For better or worse. Each of us can make a difference by not accepting this type of tourist claim, understanding and valuing the great importance of preserving the dignity of animals, and letting them live naturally in their habitat of origin, with the least possible interference by man.
It is easy and comfortable to hide behind the idea that a singular individual cannot do anything, this is how the masses formed by singular people destroy entire ecosystems.
A single action that seems isolated, almost naive, of little scope, of one person, added to that of others, is capable of destroying the biodiversity of a place. We have the example of the already mentioned Belizean coral reef. Most of the pollution that is causing its deterioration and disappearance is brought by each singular hand of each person who goes there as a tourist. That’s how powerful humanity is.
If we worked together to preserve it, it would be another story.
As we can see, analysis and preventive measures are being taken, making its satellites available, NASA collaborates to study the effects that the Coronavirus is causing.
Multiple studies focused on different areas of the environment that will allow a better understanding of the mechanisms in which this pandemic has occurred. An effort that will undoubtedly not only allow us to be better prepared in the case of having to face a second relapse of COVID-19, but will also show us new alternatives for action on how to prevent and minimize the effects of similar events in the future.
The objective data resulting from these investigations will confirm the involvement or less of COVID-19 in the changes that occurred in the environment during the pandemic. Obviously, a simple correlation of facts is not enough. The causes can be only circumstantial and therefore there is only a correlation between some events, and as we know a correlation, it does not imply an effective cause.
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