Pandemic Lockdowns Heals Water Quality

It’s been a year since SARS-CoV-2, the viral causative agent of COVID-19, infected its first victim. Yet, its effect on our activities is still felt strongly worldwide. We once thought that our modern activities are unstoppable but when the pandemic struck we were proven wrong. It was like everything froze and we had to shut ourselves in. This sudden and pronounced decrease in human activity inspired people to come up with a name, “the Great Pause”.

Dismal as the pandemic may be, it provided researchers with the perfect opportunity to collect data and reveal never before seen insights into our activities. Researchers collected data on pollution, animal behavior, precipitation, and more. With the absence of human activities, they were able to see the extent of our influence on the environment.

Anthropause - a Fancy Scientific term for “the Great Pause”

A group of researchers apparently didn’t like the term ‘the Great Pause’ so they came up with a new more scientific term ‘Anthropause’ which they shared with the entire world through a research paper which they published in the journal ‘Nature Ecology & Evolution’. To quote the paper, “anthropause to refer specifically to a considerable global slowing of modern human activities, notably travel”. It's a clever wordplay which involves the combination of anthropo-, which means human, and pause. It's great that the researchers dropped the last two letters from anthropo- because ‘anthropopause’ just sounds silly.

How our Anthropogenic Activities contributes to Pollution

Before we go any further, let’s go back in time and track down in which time period did our activities start to have an impact on our environment. According to most historians, people started to mention air pollution around the time of Hippocrates, 400 BC. From then on there were several sporadic mentions of air pollution. In the eighteenth century, pollution became evident as urban centers and industry grew. The technologies that came out in the first industrial revolution hastened the spread and increased the scale of pollutants. Around this time, Europe and North America were the main contributors to pollution. Since then, the problem of pollution seemed unstoppable as it only kept on growing. At the turn of the twentieth century, pollution issues that can cross boundaries between countries, or transboundary pollution, like acid rain, ground-level ozone, and deforestation became a widespread problem. By this time, the North American and European countries are gradually lessening their pollutant output, while developing Asian nations are increasing theirs as a consequence of attaining global competitiveness. Starting in the 2000s, mitigating the negative effects of pollution on human health became the top priority. By 2018, comprehensive and accurate data gathering systems have indicated that pollutants like sulfur and nitrous oxide reached its peak.

Anthropause lessened pollution

If it weren’t for the pandemic, air quality wouldn’t have improved as much as it has now. In China, researchers monitored the levels of PM2.5, or particulate matter with a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometers, and Air Quality Index, or AQI, in the cities that followed the lockdown protocols. After weeks of data gathering and analysis, they found that the air quality in the cities with lockdowns improved dramatically; AQI dropped by 19.84, meaning there are fewer air pollutants in general, and PM2.5 went down by 14.07 microgram per cubic meter. Despite this huge improvement, data shows that the air pollutants were still at a level that is four times higher than what the World Health Organization would deem as acceptable. This means that more effort is required to address the issue of air pollution.

This is just one of many air quality research that aims to investigate the effects of lockdowns on a city’s air quality. Other studies in China, as well as other countries, are currently in the process of finalization. Who knows what these studies would uncover. Aside from that, there was photo documentation of observable changes in several cities that indicated a significant positive change in their air quality. You may have come across some of these as they achieved ‘trending status’ for a couple of weeks. The most striking ones were the clear skies in Paris which revealed the unobstructed beauty of the Eiffel Tower and the smog-free Indian streets which made the ‘India Gate war memorial’ visible.

What about Water Quality?

But enough with air pollution, what are the lockdowns’ effect on water quality? According to Dennis Hallema, a hydrology expert from North Carolina State, air quality affects water quality. If lockdowns can improve air quality they could, subsequently, improve water quality. One study elaborated on this connection between air quality and water quality. In this study, atmospheric deposition contributed a lot to the soluble reactive phosphorus and total phosphorus contamination to Lake Tahoe. Such occurrence is entirely possible on other bodies of water. Even though there is a relationship between air quality and water quality, this relationship is complex. Other factors such as urbanization and the soil quality within the body of water’s vicinity could affect the relationship between air quality and water quality. Due to this, most experts theorized that COVID-19 lockdowns can have a positive impact on water quality. However, any improvements in water quality brought about by the lockdowns wouldn’t last long.


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