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OU amid coronavirus: Student sustainability efforts on pause; quarantine shows positive impact to air, water quality

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A squirrel on the Walker-Adams Mall during the first day of online classes after spring break on March 23.

Claims of Venetian canals with clear, clean water, full of frolicking dolphins and stoic swans. Mobs of monkeys parading through the streets of Thailand. Dozens of deer perusing through a Japanese town and a herd of drunk elephants passing out in a Chinese tea garden.

These viral tweets and articles were seen as examples of the environmental benefits of quarantining — a human-free utopia for flora and fauna. 

The reality, however, isn’t as hopeful.

As society settles in for weeks of wearing sweatpants and binge-watching Netflix, tweets and articles like these prompt the questions: What effect does the pandemic have on the environment, and does the environment have an effect on future pandemics?

According to National Geographic, those Venetian canals seem clearer due to the lack of water traffic stirring up ground sediment — not necessarily due to less water pollution. The swans have always frequented the particular canal where the viral picture was taken, and the dolphins were filmed at a port in Sardinia, hundreds of miles from Venice.

According to a news report from the Chinese news organization Xinhua News Agency, elephants regularly pass through a village in Yunnan province, but they aren’t the elephants in the photos and they didn’t drunkenly pass out in tea fields. According to the New York Times, Thai monkeys and Japanese deer are invading local towns because they’ve become so accustomed to being fed by tourists, they’re now in search of food. 

And at OU, the ramifications of COVID-19 have slowed the environmental efforts of students.

Student sustainability efforts grind to a halt

OU biology senior Gina Werdel, chair of the Student Government Association’s Student Environmental Coalition, had just secured funding for her organization’s project when OU decided to move classes online to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. 

The project was a reusable container program, in which students would receive a plastic container for food take-out and then return the containers to a drop-off location to be washed — saving the university about $129,000 a year.

“It was really disappointing because I’m a senior, and I’ve been working on this kind of stuff for four years,” Werdel said. “(The container project) was the first tangible thing that I could say that I’ve done, and I was pretty sure that it was going to work out. And then, of course, this thing that is totally out of your control comes and makes it not work out.”

Werdel said she doesn’t know if the program is viable anymore. Because the container project will not be implemented next semester, the group has lost funding approval and has pushed back implementation potentially to the fall semester of 2021.

“We can’t implement it in (the spring semester of) 2021 because people are still going to be scared at that point about the pandemic,” Werdel said. “They’re not going to want to use a container that someone’s already used, and they’re going to be afraid of the program. … It’s like a whole year and a half from now just to do it successfully, and by that time, we don’t even know what the world is going to look like.”

Werdel said while she was disappointed by the outcome of her project, she tries not to think about it too much because her priorities have changed. She said she’s thankful her family is healthy, and she’s able to financially depend on them while she’s out of a job.

“To look at the coronavirus as only affecting (the container project) would be very self-centered, because obviously people around the world are suffering from this,” Werdel said. “It’s not just this thing that canceled my project, but I try not to think about it.”

Werdel’s isn’t alone in the list of projects that have been canceled, suspended or altered due to COVID-19. She said environmental groups at OU were working on projects like implementing a compost network, hosting events like a “food-security obstacle course” and a 5K “trash run,” as well as multiple educational activities for Earth Day — all of which are now on hold.

“When people are able to meet again, I think a lot of groups are going to find that they are picking up where they left off in March or April, and I don’t think that there is going to be a lot of progress,” Werdel said. “Zoom meetings are just not the same. You just can’t get the same amount of things done.”

One organization, Green Week, is hoping to still have an impact remotely. Werdel said the organization is planning a “virtual” Green Week by hosting an online platform for their events.

“(Virtual Green Week) should be live by the time that their week would have normally happened in late April,” Werdel said. “They’re going to have a bunch of cool stuff on their website, sort of like a digital brain week.”

While quarantining has forced most of OU’s sustainability projects to go on pause, researchers globally are speculating how quarantining might also impact the environment.

The science of pollution

Ken Jucks, program manager for the Upper Atmosphere Research Program at NASA, said in an email to The Daily that satellites have acquired data showing a reduction in some types of air pollutants, resulting from quarantine-induced reduction of economic activity. 

Jucks said the most dramatic images showed decreases in nitrogen dioxide, produced primarily from fossil fuel combustion, and carbon monoxide, produced from incomplete combustion such as burning coal.

Aerosols — particles in the atmosphere from various sources — also feature prominently in the satellite images. Jucks said with the exception of aerosols, most of these types of air pollution do not have a direct impact on climate change.

According to Jucks, aerosols behave differently. Aerosols tend to redirect incoming sunlight back to space before reaching the surface, which cools the planet. 

“A decrease in aerosols would serve to allow more sunlight through, having a (warming) short-term climate effect in areas of the planet where aerosols are abundant,” Jucks said. “This temporary effect would disappear once economic activity returns to ‘normal.’”

Jucks said the dramatic drop in nitrogen dioxide will have little effect on the long-term climate timeline.

“(Nitrogen dioxide) is a source of ozone low in the atmosphere,” Jucks said. “Ozone is a fairly minor contributor to climate warming.” 

If nitrogen dioxide drops, Jucks said, it changes the pollution level of the lowest layer of Earth’s atmosphere. But that effect is only temporary, and it will return to normal levels once economic activity resumes.

Climate change’s major contributors, Jucks said, are carbon dioxide and methane.

“Both of these molecules have long atmospheric lifetimes, which is part of the reason why they are effective climate forces,” Jucks said. “Their long lifetimes make sensing decreases in these emissions from space, due to a slowdown in economic activity, difficult.”

Jucks said for any meaningful impact on the climate change timeline to occur and for that change to be visible from space, carbon dioxide emissions would need to decrease over a much longer period of time.

In addition to the quarantine’s effects on air pollution, water may also be impacted by lowered human consumption rates. 

Robert Nairn, OU environmental science professor and associate director of OU’s WaTER Center project, said while there is minimal effect on the broader problems plaguing Earth’s hydrologic cycle and coastal ecosystems, there is a possibility of some ecological benefit.

“The fact that we don’t have (as many) vehicles on the highways reduces the amount of material that ends up on the roads. That means when we get rain or storm water, some water quality may be impacted in a positive manner,” Nairn said.

Nairn said if Earth is to see any major environmental benefits from quarantining, humanity’s lowered consumption habits will have to remain long after the virus is gone.

“Thirty days, maybe 90 days or whatever (length of quarantine time) it’s going to be, is literally a drop in the bucket in the bigger picture — unless (that quarantine time) influences the decisions we make post-COVID-19,” Nairn said. “If we return back to normal operating conditions when this is over, any long-term influence, I think, would be squashed very quickly.”

The role of climate change in viral development

Eric Kramer, a communication professor at OU specializing in environmental communication, said not only can the effects of COVID-19 impact the environment, but conversely, the environment can impact how viruses are transmitted. 

“As the climate gets warmer, animals are moving north and south toward the poles and out of the tropics, because it’s warming,” Kramer said. “(Climate change) brings tropical animals northeast, and along with them are liberated viruses and bacteria and (fungi) that we don’t normally see.”

Kramer said these new pathogens, once relegated to remote corners of the world, travel with animals as they escape the warming tropics. These pathogens are also being released, Kramer said, due to deforestation.

“There are (pathogens) that have been deep in the Amazon jungles for eons, but humans never came in contact with them,” Kramer said. “And now they’re being liberated. As we go deeper into the jungles and cut everything down, and workers go in there and mix up with this stuff, these things come out.”

According to National Geographic, coronaviruses have been known to infect mammals and birds, including dogs, chickens, cattle, pigs, cats and bats. A study published in the journal Nature Medicine found COVID-19 was most likely spread through bat-to-human contact.

Zoonotic diseases account for 60 percent of known infectious diseases and 75 percent of emerging infectious diseases, according to the National Institute for Health.

In addition to pathogens spread through live animals, researchers are also concerned about pathogens spreading through the melting of Arctic permafrost.

In 2016, the BBC reported one 12-year-old boy died and at least 20 people were hospitalized after being infected by anthrax from a thawed, 75-year-old corpse of a reindeer. The reindeer, which had been trapped under permafrost, released anthrax into nearby water and soil after a heatwave in the Siberian tundra.

According to the report, the Arctic Circle is seeing a rise in temperature three times faster than the rest of the world. Scientists have already found fragments of RNA from the 1918 Spanish flu virus in Alaska’s tundra, and have detected remnants of what could be smallpox or the bubonic plague in Siberia.

“Following our work and that of others, there is now a non-zero probability that pathogenic microbes could be revived and infect us,” Jean-Michel Claverie, an evolutionary biologist at Aix-Marseille University in France, said in the report. “How likely that is is not known, but it’s a possibility. It could be bacteria that are curable with antibiotics, or resistant bacteria or a virus.” 

Claverie said in the article if the pathogen hasn’t been in contact with humans for a long time, human immune systems won’t be prepared to fight it.

Kramer said he thinks the ramifications of COVID-19 will force people to connect the dots between environmental sustainability, human consumption and global catastrophes like pandemics. He said he hopes societal reluctance to address climate change will begin to give way to meaningful action, though the road to environmental responsibility may be long and brutal. 

“I’m hoping that this pandemic will be a hammer of reality that comes down on us and makes us realize that the scientists were right,” Kramer said. “That’s the only good thing that might come out of this (pandemic) — that it just hammers us this hard until we realize that we have to change.”

Beth Wallis is a senior journalism major and political science minor, and news editor for The Daily. Previously, she worked as a junior news reporter covering university research and news managing editor.

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