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We are about to wear out that poor frog. You know the one -- the frog sitting in a pot of water that's slowly coming to a boil, but he doesn't notice the changing temperature until he's cooked.

Comparisons of our earth's changing health before and after the global virus quarantines are stories about reversals, a return to the way things used to be. It's almost as if that famous frog has leaned out of the pot, turned off the heat and discovered a cooler new world.

Maps illustrating average air pollution concentrations over Europe in mid-April 2019 show a landscape that looks covered in infected wounds. Contrasted with the mid-April 2020 map, those sores appear to be healing as skies have cleared of hot spots of pollution. On Earth Day 2020, Washington, D.C., had its cleanest spring air in 25 years. (Dare we suggest it's because most of the bloviators had left town?) It is shocking how much transformation can occur when we take only a couple of months off from belching all sorts emissions into the air. "As people stay home, Earth turns wilder and cleaner," an Associated Press article by Seth Borenstein, contains photos and charts describing many of these global changes.

We've had sense enough for a long time to realize air pollution is very bad for our health, but now the contrasts are sudden and sharp. These realizations remind me of the decree to clean Paris, France, in the late 1960s. People who thought their buildings were built of black stone were aghast to see whiteness emerge from under surfaces sooted over from centuries of burning coal and wood. Imagine cleaning black iron gates and discovering they are trimmed in gold! Notre Dame's exterior stones had suffered so much from acid rain and weather, she had to be lovingly scrubbed with soft brushes.

We cannot scrub our lungs of pathogens with cleansers or empty them like vacuum bags, but instead need to be doing extensive air sampling. Studying virus transmission via pollution particles and the viability of viruses traveling varying distances is extremely important research. But, whatever we discover about covid-19, it'll always be far easier and cheaper to keep air clean than to catch and destroy microscopic particles wherever they may float.

Across the globe the scenery is also changing. In New Delhi, the India Gate appears to actually be beige instead of a fuzzy gray, and for the first time in decades people in northern India can clearly see the Himalayan Mountains 100 miles away. Even the ground isn't shaking as much as when trains, trucks and cars crowded the roads. Brussels, Belgium, has measured between 30% to 50% less seismic noise since mid-March, detecting slight movements previously blotted out amidst the usual daily human rumble.

The low-frequency noise associated with ship traffic has decreased so dramatically during the slowdown of commercial shipping, fishing and tourist cruising that whales and other sea life are better able to hear each other exchanging their complex conversations. Marine acoustician, Michelle Fournet, who studies humpbacks, says this respite from human sound is giving researchers what may be their once-in-a-lifetime chance to listen to marine animals in a quietness a generation of humpbacks has never known. Rays, sharks and dolphins are also coming closer to calmer, quieter coastlines, and little hatchling turtles are better able to make their run to the sea without first dodging beach people. Even the water in Venice's canals is clear enough to see fish and jellyfish swimming through town.

"Animals Reclaiming the World" on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kdyb9oIhtFs) is a compilation of critters enjoying their freedom without humans, although it's hard to know which clips are truly from the pandemic period. Alligators, elephants, rhinos, monkeys, pumas, bears, civets, kangaroos, goats, wild boars and sheep are roaming city streets, neighborhoods and swimming pools. Some lions have found golf greens relaxing. Coyotes are thought to be crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, and some French cows have become beach bums. And finally, away from the voyeuristic gaze of humans, two pandas in the Hong Kong Zoo had enough privacy to consummate their 10-year relationship.

It will be hard to keep the frog out of that pot. Nikki Williams of the London Wildlife Trust points out, "When the crisis ends, wildlife will still be in decline. The only way to ensure its recovery is to create strong agriculture and environment bills, which put nature, and all the benefits it brings, at the heart of policy and our daily lives."

Commentary on 05/05/2020

Print Headline: The way we were

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