UVic researcher investigates the lasting impact of lockdowns on the environment

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A new study led by marine biologist Dr. Amanda Bates suggests that there is more complexity to the issue

Face mask discarded in leaves
Stock photo by Christian Lue via Unsplash

Wild boars took to the urban center of Haifa, Israel; cougars roamed the empty streets of Santiago, Chile; and China enjoyed rare blue skies. In many parts of the world, visibly so in big cities, noise pollution and carbon emissions lowered to record levels. 

The consequences of global lockdown were at first sight positive towards the environment, leading most to conclude that humans and their day-to-day activity had a negative impact on their surroundings. But a new study led by marine biologist Dr. Amanda Bates suggests that there is more complexity to the issue and the dual role that humans play.

Bates joined UVic in July as both a biology professor and as impact chair in Ocean Ecosystem Change and Conservation. 

The study she led, alongside the PAN-Environment Working Group, underlines the complex role that humans hold as both custodians of and threats to the environment. 

“Humans are intimately connected to nature, and the lockdown associated with the pandemic brought these connections to focus,” Bates said in an interview with the Martlet. “What we have found is that even small actions…can add up, and accumulate, and [they] need to be considered.”

Humans have the power to alter their habitat and that of non-human entities. That is one effect of the Anthropocene, the current epoch where human behaviour is the dominant influence that impacts the environment in irreversible ways such as global warming and animal extinction. 

Bates’ research explores the Anthropause, or global lockdown, and the immediate effects it has had on the environment, both negative and positive. 

The lack of human presence and activity during lockdown saw the increase of animals wandering into man-made terrain, which, contrary to popular belief, was not exactly good news. Without humans around, the careful dependency of ecosystems and their species on human conservation efforts became more complicated when activities such as restoration and enforcement tasks were reduced, while activities like illegal hunting increased.

However, the study also shows how human impact on the environment is not completely negative. Bates says that the lockdowns have shown us that our actions and efforts do matter, and that if we change our behaviour and policies rapidly we will be able to see strong and measurable positive impacts on nature.

“We need to be thoughtful about how we interact with our natural world,” Bates said. 

As part of her Pew fellowship, Bates will be studying the long term effects of the Anthropause, which will require years of research as more data becomes available. When ready, the results will be made public and accessible to decision-makers. 

“We [are] experiencing strong links between environmental and human health, and I hope this will lead to transformative changes in policy and advancing sustainability goals into the future,” she said. 

For better or worse, the COVID-19 lockdown impacted surrounding wildlife and ecosystems. Knowing the positive and negative outcomes of the aftermath of the first lockdown will inform us on how to move forward.

Bates expects her work will reveal the need for global partnerships amongst environmentalists and scientists, but also the need for community efforts and local experts regarding conservation action. 

“I hope community-engaged practices continue as historically such programs are more successful in generating positive management outcomes,” said Bates.

Most importantly, though, Bates says people need to get involved.

“The actions each of us take can change the world,” Bates said. “Finding a role you are passionate about [can help] create sustainable futures.”