In the first weeks of global Covid-19 shutdowns stories of the natural world recovering from the rampant effects of industrialization began surfacing across social media. Often misleading tales of dolphins returning to the Venetian Canals, freely roaming elephants and lowered metropolitan carbon emissions suggested that the environment, given this unprecedented reduction in human activity, had begun to heal—record breaking emissions from current arctic wildfires put those stories into grim perspective.
While many of the stories heralding the recovery of nature in the early stages of coronavirus shutdowns were exaggerated, misleading or unequivocally false, the resiliency of the natural environment when left to its own devices is beyond speculation. Even Chernobyl, the second most irradiated plot of land on the face of the earth, has been reclaimed by healthy, fully functioning (though doubtlessly radioactive) forest in a span of less than 30 years, including a top predator wolf population 7 times as dense as forests surrounding the exclusion zone.
The problem with embellished resiliency claims made about nature is that they provide a false sense of relief or security in the face of truly dire circumstances. Carbon emissions and the smog they produce in cities around the world did indeed decrease and are still down in many places, and the lack of noise pollution has been suggested to have had positive implications for migratory bird populations and other animal communities vulnerable to its detrimental effects, but it is short sighted to believe that we have even begun to allow the earth enough time and space to catch its breath.
The increased usage of single use PPE alone has already begun to manifest in higher concentrations of plastic waste from gloves, masks and other protective gear in our oceans and waterways, and world leaders opposed to conservation have used the global focus on the pandemic to sneak past policies that weaken environmental protections from the Amazon —where more than 1,200 square miles of forest have been leveled since January—to the Northern Boreal forests.
What’s more, the reality of potential, even inevitable, environmental collapse that we faced before the pandemic has not disappeared, nor have we miraculously come closer to solving the problems that got us to this point in the first place.
For the second year in a row, and after years of incremental decline, seasonal Arctic wildfires have burned hotter, wider and released more emissions than any season in nearly two decades of monitoring. In June alone arctic wildfires emitted 59 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, more than that of any single Scandinavian nation’s total annual carbon emissions in 2017.
Though a vital component of a healthy arctic ecosystem, wildfires of this particular magnitude are not only unprecedented, but cause for significant concern. Coupled with earlier melting sea ice, receding snowpack and bone-dry soils these fires have the potential to alter the northern landscape indefinitely.
This phenomenon is not isolated to the north. Southern hemispheric wildfire seasons, which typically begin in August, have also been growing in scale and intensity, with Amazonian, Indonesian and Australian wildfires all setting their own records in 2019.
The emissions from the before unseen intensity of global fire seasons retain the potential to make our already weak emission reduction goals prematurely obsolete. Unless we take radical steps to curb emissions, protect wild spaces and ensure biospheric stability globally, our fate will be sealed whether we drive less and work from home or not.