This Earth Day, Earth has something to say

On the 50th anniversary, the planet shows us what's possible.

Crowds gather by a George Washington statue in Union Square for Earth Day in New York City, April 22, 1970

 Massive crowds gather by a George Washington statue in Union Square on April 22, 1970 for Earth Day celebrations in New York City. (Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

 Fifty years ago, on April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day was held when 20 million people participated in rallies across the United States, celebrating the environment and protesting activities that put it at risk.

This year, huge events were planned to commemorate the 50th anniversary. Then COVID-19 spread through the world and these in-person celebrations and protests have been canceled, leaving everything to the digital realm.

Earth Day was the brainchild of Sen. Gaylord Nelson, a Democrat from Wisconsin and leading environmentalist. Harvard graduate student Denis Hayes helped organize campus teach-ins during the event and went on to found the Earth Day Network.

More recently, Hayes drew a connection between COVID-19 and climate change, and how the U.S. government failed to effectively manage either crisis. Once again, he called for action. "COVID-19 robbed us of Earth Day this year. So let's make Election Day Earth Day," he wrote in an opinion piece in The Seattle Times. "On November 3, don't vote for your pocketbook, or your political tribe, or your cultural biases. This November 3, vote for the Earth."

Even those who don't want to bring politics into it can agree that Earth is certainly making this 50th anniversary a notable one. In this strange time, with overwhelming health and economic concerns, the planet has gotten a break and produced a few reasons for hope.

A reduction in global air pollution

 Levels of nitrogen dioxide, a trace gas associated with industry, before and after the coronavirus lockdown in China.


 Levels of nitrogen dioxide, a trace gas associated with industry, before and after the coronavirus lockdown in China. (Photo: NASA/ESA [public domain])


With major lockdowns in cities all over the world, there have been significant improvements in air quality levels in major urban centers.

Measurements from NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) satellites show a marked reduction in the amount of nitrogen dioxide, a gas produced from road traffic and other fossil fuel combustion processes, over industrialized areas of Asia, Europe, the U.K. and the U.S.

"In a sense, we are conducting the largest ever global air pollution experiment. Over a relatively short period of time, we’re turning off major air pollutant sources in industry and transport," Paul Monks, a professor of atmospheric chemistry and earth observation science at the University of Leicester, writes in the World Economic Forum.

During late January and early February, levels of nitrogen dioxide over cities and industrial locations in Europe and Asia dropped by as much as 40% compared to the same period in 2019.

But what will happen when people go back to work and businesses reopen?

"The pandemic could show us how the future might look with less air pollution, or it may just indicate the scale of the challenge ahead," Monks writes. "At the very least, it should challenge governments and businesses to consider how things can be done differently after the pandemic, to hold on to temporary improvements in air quality."

 A dramatic fall in carbon emissions

 Highways in Auckland, New Zealand, highways are virtually deserted in mid-April after four weeks of lockdown.

 Highways in Auckland, New Zealand, highways are virtually deserted in mid-April after four weeks of lockdown. (Photo: Greg-Ward/


With transport use, electricity demand and industrial activity cut around the world, global carbon emissions are expected to drop an unprecedented 5.5% this year, according to an analysis by Carbon Brief, a U.K.-based website that covers developments in climate science and energy.

"The coronavirus crisis could trigger the largest ever annual fall in CO2 emissions in 2020, more than during any previous economic crisis or period of war," according to the site.

However, this drop isn't enough to meet the goal of the Paris Agreement on climate change. Emissions would have to fall by 7.6% each year between 2020 and 2030 to be on track to meet the 1.5 degree C temperature goal of the pact.

"To put it another way, atmospheric carbon levels are expected to increase again this year, even if CO2 emissions cuts are greater still," according to Carbon Brief. "Rising CO2 concentrations — and related global warming — will only stabilize once annual emissions reach net-zero."

Clearer water 

 A seabird swims across clearer waters by a gondola in a Venice canal in mid-March.

In Venice, residents have noticed that the water in the city's iconic canals has become much clearer now that the city is in lockdown. Tourist boats, water taxis and transport boats are no longer allowed on the water and the vaporetti or water buses are making fewer trips.

Members of a Facebook group called Venezia Pulita (which means Clean Venice in English) have been uploading photos of the nearly unrecognizably quiet city. Fish have been spotted in the canals, which is unusual for waters normally full of sediment churned by all the canal traffic, reports CNN.

"The water is blue and clear," Gloria Beggiato, who owns the Metropole Hotel and has a view over the Venice lagoon, tells The Guardian. "It is calm like a pond, because there are no more waves caused by motorized boats transporting day-tripper tourists. And of course, the giant cruise ships have disappeared."

Happier animals

With so many people staying at home, animals have been tentatively exploring more of the Earth. Those that would traditionally only come out at night are venturing into the now-quiet of daytime, while others that typically stay on the outskirts are now wandering down empty streets.

Sika deer are appearing outside their normal habitat in Nara, Japan, wild turkeys are showing up in a park in Oakland, California, and orcas have been going farther up Vancouver's Burrell Inlet than they typically do. Due to the lack of cruise ships, dolphins have returned in greater numbers to the Italian port of Cagliari. The bears and other animals of Yosemite have been having a "party" since the park closed on March 20, says one ranger there.

People are also noticing some differences in cities and even their own backyards.

"Cities are also noisy places, and the noise affects how different species communicate with each other. Birds have to sing louder and at a higher pitch than their rural counterparts, which affects the perceived quality of their songs," Becky Thomas, senior teaching fellow in ecology at the Royal Holloway University of London, writes in The Conversation. "With reduced traffic noise, we could see differences in how bats, birds and other animals communicate, perhaps offering better mating opportunities."

Maybe these are all just reminders about what Earth Day is for.

Earth flag

 The mission of Earth Day hasn't changed, but our marking of the day in 2020 will have to. (Photo: Street Protest TV from USA [CC BY 2.0]/Wikimedia Commons)
Mary Jo Dilonardo, 21 April 2020