But the response to the pandemic has unintentionally produced other large-scale, albeit less visible, effects. In a bittersweet twist, the surreal slowdown in life as we know it has given researchers a rare opportunity to study the modern world under truly bizarre conditions, and they are scrambling to collect as much data as possible. Here are four ways the pandemic is felt across land, air and sea.
There is less rumbling on the surface
Seismologists around the world have noticed the same effect that Koelemeijer has detected in London and in more traditional stations than a chimney.
The trend started with Thomas Lecocq, seismologist at the Royal Observatory of Belgium in Brussels. Earthquake stations are generally located well outside metropolitan areas, away from vibrations that could obscure subtle tremors inside the Earth, but the Brussels station was established over a century ago, before a city does not develop around it. Today, it offers a fascinating insight into the ebb and flow of a bustling city; Lecocq found that when it snows, anthropogenic seismic activity decreases, and on the day of a road race, it increases. Lecocq verified the seismic data the day before the start of the Belgian closure, then the next morning. The drop in activity, he said, was “immediate”. Today in Brussels is like Christmas day.
Lecocq shared his online approach and seismologists in the United States, France, New Zealand and elsewhere are now seeing the effects of their country’s social distancing measures on seismic activity. For seismologists who study seismic signals from inside the Earth – rather than from other sources, including people, animals, even storms – quarantines seem to have made listening easier. “Normally we would not pick up a 5.5 [magnitude earthquake] on the other side of the world, because it would be too noisy, but with less noise, our instrument is now able to pick up 5.5 with much nicer signals during the day, “said Koelemeijer.
There is less air pollution
As cities and, in some cases, entire nations cross the locked pandemic, Earth observation satellites have detected a significant decrease in the concentration of a common air pollutant, nitrogen dioxide, which is entering into the atmosphere by emissions from cars, trucks, buses, and power plants. This decrease, observed in China and in Europe, coincided with strict measures of social distancing on the ground. Air pollution can seriously harm human health and the World Health Organization estimates that conditions resulting from exposure to environmental pollution – including stroke, heart disease and respiratory disease – kill about 4.2 million people a year.
Cleaner air could lead to a brief respite in some parts of the world with severe air pollution even as they fight the coronavirus. According to an analysis by Marshall Burke, a professor in the Stanford Department of Earth System Sciences, a reduction in atmospheric particles linked to a pandemic – the deadliest form of air pollution – has probably saved the lives of 4 000 young children and 73 000 older adults China over two months this year.