Outdoors in Austin

COVID-19 crisis sparking environmental changes in Austin and beyond

COVID-19 crisis sparking environmental changes in Austin and beyond

Downtown Austin rush hour traffic
Fewer cars has led to better air quality in some of the country's biggest cities. Photo by typhoonski/Getty Images

These are challenging times for we humans, navigating joblessness, health crises, and sheltering in our homes while COVID-19 runs its course. But for many of Earth's other inhabitants, the pandemic offers a silver lining. 

According to the Texas Department of Transportation, Austin had a 49 percent drop in traffic for the month of March while traffic decreased 41 percent for the state as a whole. In an admittedly unscientific poll on social media, with less traffic noise, residents in Austin and other Texas cities report hearing more birds lately, including those who live downtown.

Another possible win for wildlife: the drop in traffic seems to have translated into fewer collisions between cars and animals across the state, based on a monthly average for the total number of such collisions in 2018 and for the first three months of this year. That’s good news not just for the animals; those crashes caused 27 fatalities in Texas in 2018.

In the absence of cruise ships, dolphins have returned in greater numbers to the Italian port of Cagliari; swans cruise the canals of Burano; and residents of Vancouver, Canada, spotted a pod of Orcas in a nearby fiord for the first time.  

Cornell University marine ecologist Michelle Fournet, who studies acoustic environments, plans to investigate how waters have changed off the coasts of Alaska and Florida in the absence of noise from cruise ships. The quiet likely benefits marine creatures; existing research shows that noise from ships can increase their stress-hormone levels and affect reproductive success.

Scientists report earth itself has grown quieter as well. Thomas Lecocq, a seismologist at the Royal Observatory of Belgium in Brussels, observed a huge drop in human-made seismic noise, an observation also reported by seismologists in the U.S., France, and New Zealand.  

Some places are seeing clearer skies, too. In March, NASA satellites indicate levels of a common air pollutant were some 30 percent lower on average along the I-95 corridor from Washington, D.C. to Boston compared to typical levels in March from 2015-19. Other factors such as weather could be playing a role, but data from a European Space Agency satellite showing better air quality in one U.S. city has been well documented: Los Angeles. The World Health Organization estimates that conditions caused by exposure to ambient pollution kill about 4.2 million people a year, which means that the pandemic could actually save lives.

Wildlife seems to be enjoying our absence. Staff at Yosemite National Park report seeing more bobcats, coyotes, and bears in the park’s fields, open spaces, and even around facilities. People in cities see more critters out and about, too, with bears and coyotes wandering the streets in California. Of course, we may just be noticing nature more while working at home (an upside in and of itself), say Texas Parks & Wildlife urban biologists, who also note that animals tend to move around more in spring. (Austin parks remain open and so haven’t seen significant changes in wildlife behavior.)

Fewer people on Texas beaches could be a good thing for nesting sea turtles, especially endangered Kemp’s ridleys, which nest during the day. (See a video of a nest hatching on an empty Brazilian beach here.) Nesting shorebirds may benefit as well.

A number of studies (including here and here) show that the amount and diversity of wildlife in protected land and marine areas can dramatically increase when we just let them be. Maybe this pandemic is not only a much-needed break for nature, but an opportunity for us to consider how we can make lasting changes once the pandemic has ended.