Atmospheric and oceanographic scientists are just as concerned as anyone about helping their friends and family, the nation and the world make it through the trials of the COVID-19 pandemic. But it is also their job to pay attention to a kind of grand experiment that's underway — an unprecedented hiatus in human pressure on global ecosystems and what that hiatus could mean on the ground, and on the water, for Maine.
Paul Mayewski is the director of the University of Maine's Climate Change Institute. He says that the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed the pause button on pollution worldwide.
“Unfortunately, like 9/11, this is a situation in which there is a tremendous shutdown in activity, even more dramatically than 9/11 because it is happening all over the world,” he says.
For scientists such as Mayewski, it's a chance to study phenomena that hearken back to the pre-industrial era and, some believe, could provide a snapshot of what a post-fossil future could look like.
"We will see decreases in the emissions of carbon, potentially for many weeks, if not months. It will be important to see how much of a drop actually occurs in the atmosphere because that gives us a feeling of what kind of reductions might be helpful."
Mayewski and other scientists say any reduction in the world's rate of carbon emissions attributable to the economic slowdown won't make much of a direct difference in long term global warming trends. Some say, though, it could help convince consumers that a faster transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources is more doable than they thought.
And in the short-term, there are likely to be marked effects on other pollutants.
"We're learning what it would be like to live in a significantly less polluted, in terms of the atmosphere, significantly less polluted environment — and a situation in which air quality is much better than it normally is," says Mayewski.
In Maine, regulators are watching for indicators that a significant reduction is under way in pollutants that can directly harm human health — pollutants like ozone, nitrogen oxide and fine particulates such as heavy metals. Local automotive traffic accounts for roughly half of such pollutants here, but much of the rest floats over from tailpipes, energy production and other industrial processes to the south and west.
Jeffrey Crawford directs the state's Bureau of Air Quality. He says it may be a month before there are sufficient data from Maine's monitoring stations to rigorously quantify a trend, but if you just take a look at the utter lack of traffic at Portland's notoriously packed Franklin Avenue exit from Interstate 295, you can see what is going on.
"You take a left from the south and you're coming up from 295, and you never get through there. So we are seeing significantly reduced traffic, and if you reduce traffic 25 or 50 percent you're going to reduce your emissions."
Crawford expects that data gathered over this period to be heavily mined by analysts, regulators and policy-makers for measures of the effects of radically-lowered pollution levels.
"It might very well provide a real-world example of what happens with very significant additional emission reductions, what are the impacts."
And it is not just on-the-ground effects that scientists are thinking about — it's in the water as well.
"This is a bit of a natural experiment where we're not interacting with the natural world the way we normally would at this time of year."
Andrew Pershing is chief scientific officer at the Gulf of Maine Marine Research Institute. He says that the biggest effect of the pandemic in the Gulf of Maine so far is reduced effort among fishermen. That's sad evidence, he says, of the harm the virus is inflicting on coastal economies - particularly those who depend heavily on selling fresh seafood to the restaurant industry.
He says that some fishermen, such as those who ordinarily would be just setting out for scallops this month, may be able to make up for losses later in the year. But that kind of shift in timing, he says, could produce new ecosystem dynamics.
"So overall in the year they'll probably catch the same number of scallops. And so what does that mean if you shift the catch from the spring to have more of it in the fall?"
Pershing has many such questions: he notes that this is spawning season for some groundfish such as cod or haddock, and a pullback by fishermen could provide a real-world test of hypotheses about just how important seasonal protections really are.
Similarly, he says, a shift in timing by lobstermen could, in turn, shift pressures on the waning herring fishery that's been their traditional bait source.
"Herring are such an important part of the ecosystem. So that's the one you might point to that would have this kind of broader knock-on effect. Even just the small seasonal shifts could make a difference."
But COVID-19 is reducing scientists’ days at seas as well. Pershing says that most research cruises planned this spring and summer are now on hold to maintain social distancing. So direct observations of new underwater dynamics will have to wait.
Meanwhile, the Trump Administration this week ratcheted back fuel economy standards, a move scientists and environmentalists say will ultimately contribute to global warming and harm human health.
Originally published April 1, 2020 at 5:25 p.m. ET.