As the coronavirus pandemic took hold last spring and people around the world went into lockdown, a certain type of news story started to spring up—the idea that, in the absence of people, nature was returning to a healthier, more pristine state. There were viral (and fake) reports of dolphins in the canals of Venice, Italy, and pumas in the streets in Santiago, Chile. But new research shows that the true effect of suddenly removing people from so many environments has turned out to be much more complex.
“It was surprising how variable the responses were,” says Amanda Bates, an ecologist at Memorial University, in Newfoundland and Labrador, who led an international team of more than 350 researchers in an effort to study how lockdowns have affected the natural world. “It’s impossible to say,” Bates says, whether the consequence of people’s sudden disappearance “was positive or negative.”
The team collected and analyzed data from hundreds of scientific monitoring programs, as well as media reports from 67 countries. As many would expect, it did find evidence of nature benefiting from the sudden drop in air, land, and water travel.
Wildlife also benefited from reduced air and noise pollution as industry, natural-resource extraction, and manufacturing declined. There was less litter found on beaches and in parks, and beach closures in some areas left the shoreline to wildlife. In Florida, for example, beach closures led to a 39 percent increase in nesting success for loggerhead turtles. Ocean fishing fell by 12 percent, and fewer animals were killed by vehicle strikes on roads and in the water. Ocean noise, which is known to disrupt a variety of marine animals, dropped dramatically in many places, including in the busy Nanaimo Harbour, in British Columbia, where it fell by 86 percent.