Fact check: COVID-19 crisis has not created decreased long-term human environmental impact

Devon Link

The claim: Since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, human environmental impact has decreased

As COVID-19 infections climb beyond 400,000 cases globally, and as countries have increasingly responded with lockdowns and shelter-in-place directives, social media users are pointing to signs of environmental progress as a hopeful prospect amid the viral pandemic.

One March 17 Facebook post with nearly 200,000 comments claims “The Earth has already began showing signs of amazing things that are happening from the absence of human pollution."

“This really shouldn’t be seen as a silver lining,” McGill University associate professor and epidemiologist Jill Baumgartner told the New York Times. “It’s not a sustainable way to reduce air pollution, and the long-term economic and well-being impacts of this crisis are going to be devastating for many people.”

Although air pollution has decreased, experts say the effects are only temporary. And, viral social media posts of wildlife retaking developed areas are misrepresenting the facts.

Social distancing because of COVID-19 has temporarily decreased air pollution

Since social distancing practices have been enacted across the U.S., cities are showing decreased air pollution. Using emissions-detecting satellite images, the New York Times reported "huge declines in pollution over major metropolitan areas, including Los Angeles, Seattle, New York, Chicago and Atlanta."

The satellite images detect atmospheric levels of nitrogen dioxide, a gas released into the air when fuel is burned. The Environmental Protection Agency explains, “NO2 forms from emissions from cars, trucks and buses, power plants, and off-road equipment.”

The New York Times attributes the cities’ low NO2 levels to decreased transportation due to social distancing practices.

During the COVID-19 outbreak, China saw drastic reductions in NO2 levels that began near Wuhan and spread across the county. The March 17 Facebook post pointed to these levels as evidence of decreased human environmental impact.

A man wearing a face mask walks through a quiet retail district in Beijing on Monday, March 23, 2020. Even while social distancing and quarantines for new arrivals remain the norm, China is striving to restore activity in the world's second-largest economy after the shutdown over the coronavirus outbreak. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan) /// ORG XMIT: XHG109

“In (January and February) of 2020, NO2 values in eastern and central China were significantly lower (from 10 to 30 percent lower) than what is normally observed for this time period,” according to NASA

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center air quality researcher Dr. Fei Liu also said in the post by NASA on its website that, “This year, the reduction rate is more significant than in past years and it has lasted longer… I am not surprised because many cities nationwide have taken measures to minimize spread of the virus.”

The European Space Agency's early March data shows that NO2 levels have increased since normal activity has begun to resume in China.

Canals in Venice are visibly clearer, but not cleaner

The March 17 Facebook post also pointed to recent clarity of the trademark canals in Venice as evidence of decreased pollution.

But on March 16, the Venice Mayor’s Office told CNN that was not the case.

"The water now looks clearer because there is less traffic on the canals, allowing the sediment to stay at the bottom," the Venice mayor’s office said. "It's because there is less boat traffic that usually brings sediment to the top of the water's surface."

The mayor’s office did report decreased air pollution, similar to that seen in China and U.S. cities.

Animals aren’t retaking Italian waterways; they were already there

The Facebook post also described dolphin sightings off Italy as an environmental improvement. Other social media users have reported swan and dolphin sightings as evidence of decreased human impact during the viral pandemic.

National Geographic and Snopes recently debunked those claims.

One tweet with more than a million views showed a video of a dolphin swimming along an embankment and was captioned, “Venice hasn't seen clear canal water in a very long time. Dolphins showing up too. Nature just hit the reset button on us.”

National Geographic reported, “The 'Venetian' dolphins were filmed at a port in Sardinia, in the Mediterranean Sea, hundreds of miles away.”

Dolphins are not a rare sight in Sardinia, an Italian island in the Mediterranean Sea, where dolphin-watching is a common tourist attraction.

Another tweet with a million likes claimed swans returned to Venice as “an unexpected side effect of the pandemic.”

National Geographic reported, “The swans in the viral posts regularly appear in the canals of Burano, a small island in the greater Venice metropolitan area.”

The Twitter user later told National Geographic that she lived in New Delhi, India, saw the swan photos online and mistakenly claimed they had “returned” to Venice. She hasn’t deleted her tweet and says she does not plan to because it got so many likes.

The Facebook user that posted the March 17 post has not responded to USA TODAY’s request for comment.

Our ruling: Partly False

We rate this claim PARTLY FALSE because some of the assertions about pollution and the environment were not supported by our research. There is decreased air pollution in areas practicing social distancing, however, air quality will likely revert to its previous state once normal activity resumes as cities and countries manage to quell the virus outbreak as has been the case in China. The Venice canals are clearer, but they are not cleaner. And social media users are mistakenly identifying normal wildlife activity as an abnormal effect of reduced human activity during the viral pandemic.

As National Geographic explained, “The phenomenon highlights how quickly eye-popping, too-good-to-be-true rumors can spread in times of crisis. People are compelled to share posts that make them emotional.”

Our fact-check sources: