The Legacy of Coronavirus
Alina McGregor considers how coronavirus will impact our environment and how this impact may be tangible many years from now
Coronavirus is going to leave a legacy. When the 2003 SARS outbreak eased, governments undertook measures to strengthen their preparedness in case of another outbreak. Now, governments across the world are doing the same, but there are also going to be a number of very different legacies, ones that the earth will remember.
In the last few months, nitrogen dioxide emitted from vehicles dropped by up to 60 percent over cities in China compared with last year, and the same has happened in New York City and other major cities across the world. Scientists have discovered that tree rings, ice cores and sediment deposits could record these changes in pollution. Back in 2017 researchers found evidence of the Black Death inside ice cores pulled from the Alps, where the annual levels of lead in the ice cores took a sudden dip, which matches up with the dates of Europe’s bubonic plague. Similar to what’s occurring now, this plummet in lead levels was due to the pandemic shutting down economic activity, like lead mining and smelting, which meant that fewer particles were floating in the air and settling in the ice. Today, scientists are focusing on pollutant particles such as lead, cadmium, soot, and sulphur. These come primarily from coal and natural gas power plants as well as vehicles.
Back in 2017 researchers found evidence of the Black Death inside ice cores pulled from the Alps
This observational practice is reframing how we view changes in civilisations from thousands of years ago. Ice cores collected from different places around the world show similar changes at the same times, confirming the extent to which nations impact each other. Ice from the Huascaran in Peru and ice from the Tibetan Plateau in the Himalayan Mountains, as well as ice from Kilimanjaro in Africa, all show evidence of a drought around 4,200 years ago – the same signature of changes in dust, chemicals and isotope levels, half a world away.
Another place that paleoclimatologists say could house these particles is in tree rings that have been collecting physical, chemical, and biological evidence of this period in time, in the form of gases and metals that have been deposited into the water and soil. Scientists can use mass spectrometry to analyse how levels vary from one year to the next, and since we generally have more trees close to cities than ice cores they may even be more reliable.
Other markers of the pandemic could include personal protective equipment (PPE), as it is often made of single use plastic. Billions of gloves, masks, and various other items don’t easily or quickly degrade could be dug up by future geologists.
If 2020 is really the year that humanity changes its behaviour and changes its atmosphere for the better, future generations will be able to see it in ice cores and tree rings.