When most of the world came to a grinding stop in March 2020, there was a shift in human and animal activity. Some communities saw pedestrian, car and air traffic drop so drastically that animals started behaving differently or using ecosystems as they would prior to constant human activity.
Changes in human and animal activity throughout the COVID-19 pandemic are associated with a phenomenon known as the “anthropause.” What is the anthropause, and how did it change our ecosystems? Where do we want the anthropause to continue?
Anthropause is a newly coined term that took shape as a result of the pandemic. A Smithsonian Magazine article provides context about the anthropause (bit.ly/3Mv4J9R): “The profound change in human activity occasioned by the pandemic might be having a likewise profound effect on animals around the world, researchers say. Recently, a team of scientists coined a name to describe this phenomenon: the ‘anthropause.’”
A 2021 report in Biological Conservation quantifies how humans stopped moving around (bit.ly/3Vp2edf): “The global peak of lockdown occurred on April 5th, 2020, at which time 4.4 billion people were impacted, representing 57 percent of the world’s population.” The report further describes how people all over the world spent more time at home in the weeks surrounding the lockdown peak, leading to a 41-percent decrease in driving and a 20-percent reduction in park visits.
The report continues, “The April 2020 period also saw major disruptions in community, food transport, and supply chains, with a 9-percent decrease in marine traffic globally and a 75-percent total reduction in air traffic.”
With fewer humans in the normal circulation of their lives, some animals had a much easier time existing. Marine life could see further in water as fewer boats turbulated the surface. Birds stopped yelling as much — which is an odd way to say that without all the noise pollution of traffic, ecologists noticed birds talking at quieter and lower frequencies.
A study published in the academic journal Ecosphere reports that during the pandemic, many people found a greater appreciation for local habitats, such as backyard gardens and public parks (bit.ly/3TnGw7H). According to the study, if appreciative behaviors become “habitual routine” and are “low impact (e.g., not overfertilizing),” the results could lead to long-term benefits for people and ecosystems.
The study further explains: “During the anthropause in the early stage of the pandemic, more people became aware of environmental issues and the need to access outdoor spaces for maintaining mental health and well-being, as well as practicing home gardening and urban agriculture for home economic and food security. These residential landscape changes could potentially affect productivity, biodiversity and nutrient flow at much larger scales, which requires further long-term study.”
Not all anthropause changes benefited animals. Initially, reduced traffic meant fewer collisions with animals, the New York Times noted (https://nyti.ms/3Vn5Lsz). However, without all the noise and human traffic, mountain lions moved closer to homes in California and were subsequently more likely to be hit by cars later in the pandemic. In other areas of the world, poachers were less likely to run into tourists, so it was easier for them to poach.
There are probably millions of different examples of positive and negative anthropause results. Further into the COVID era, the pendulum of human activity swung back quickly in U.S. national parks, becoming packed with tourists again and further stressing human/animal borders.
Before the anthropause, there was a 2015 viral video on wolves (https://vimeo.com/86466357). In Yellowstone National Park, wolves had been hunted and driven out of the park for about 70 years. When they were reintroduced, something interesting happened to the river.
With no predators, deer and elk hung out by the river shore, eating and pooping right on the riverbank. The deer affected the water quality and increased river bank erosion by eating all the vegetation. As the wolves rebounded, the prey had to stay out of sight and spent more time in the woods than near the river.
What happened as a result of the wolf presence was remarkable. The shores of the river regrew as erosion once prevented vegetation. The forests, now full of deer, had more fertilizer and grew more quickly. The additional trees brought back birds and beavers. The beavers built dams and slowed down the river, reducing flood erosion. Overall, biodiversity boomed in the area.
Managing freshwater resources
How does this relate to the extended plumbing and heating community? There is no escape from the give-and-take relationship we have with our ecosystems. Individual results will vary from area to area, but an overall theme is that there are small glimpses into areas without humans through the anthropause. If we analyze this change, we may find better ways to manage the freshwater resources we need.
In a theoretical example, let’s say the water utility in my area noticed that the anthropause significantly impacted water quality entering its processing plants. Maybe the reduced traffic in the canyon that feeds its system kept more oil out of the water during COVID and helped the deer predators thin the deer population more effectively, which helped the river banks rebound, similar to the Yellowstone example.
Taking it a step further, maybe that slower river reduced the number of times the municipal water system was overwhelmed by storm surges that ended up in the sewer instead of being treated for drinking water. The slower-moving water could also carry less of a mineral load down to the valley. Maybe the hardness of the water drops, reducing scale buildup in plumbing systems.
If car traffic inevitably increases again, could you argue that a slower speed limit in this canyon, reducing the potential for cars to kill deer predators, indirectly improves the quality of water in my kitchen?
This example may be a complete fantasy — or a painfully simple adjustment that could be made based on observations from the anthropause. If you are curious about the topic, Google anthropause and your city or state. Maybe there are other water system levers we can pull to keep the better parts of the anthropause.