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The New Us: Cleaner air and water. Is shutdown a silver lining?

Juno Beach Closed - Corona.jpg
The beach off Loggerhead Park in Juno Beach remains closed.{ } No humans on the beach and fewer boats in the water have given a temporary boost to marine life.{ } (WPEC)

Two rare sawfish were spotted from a high rise, swimming earlier this month in South Florida coastal waters.

Could the coronavirus lockdown be responsible?

“It’s a lot quieter for these animals,” said Jim Sullivan, Ph.D., executive director of Florida Atlantic University Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, north of Ft. Pierce.

“So they might not be as scared to come close to shore,” said Sullivan. “I’ve heard reports people are seeing animals they don’t normally see around in the water.”

Call it a silver lining — despite the tremendous human toll from the coronavirus and resulting shutdown, there appears to be an unexpected positive consequence for our environment.

Sullivan said with no cruise ships, no party boats, or fishing tours out on the water, there’s less pollution and lot less noise beneath the surface.

“Sometimes whales (are) in our area, but certainly dolphins, and they use sound to communicate,” said Sullivan. “I’m sure they’re finding it a little bit easier and quieter.”

“As far as wildlife here in South Florida, I think the one that has an inherent benefit is manatees,” said Benji Studt of Palm Beach County Environmental Resources Management (ERM).

Studt says though most manatees had already started their migration north, fewer boats means a safer trip.

The fact many beaches remain closed and there’s less boat traffic, also helps nesting sea turtles.

Loggerhead Marinelife Center in Juno Beach says the number of nests is up more than 50 percent over this time last year, although staffers believe other factors could also account for the nesting bump.

Along with the water, the pandemic has also made a positive difference in the air.

“We’ve had such a shut down in our use of cars and airliners, and industry, for that matter, that a lot of the fossil fuel burning we normally would do as a world, has reduced dramatically,” said Sullivan of FAU-Harbor Branch.

And, NASA has graphics based on satellite data that prove it.

“This air pollution of CO-2 and nitrogen dioxide, we can see it with satellites, and the change has been dramatic,” said Sullivan. “Very, very much reduced air pollution across the globe.”

But when all this is over, will we just go right back to doing the same things the same way, with the same negative impact on the environment?

“We have significantly reduced our fossil fuel loads, and we’re working remotely,” said Studt, of Palm Beach County ERM. “When we get back to some kind of new normal, does that continue?”

“People will start to say, ‘hey, I can work at home one or two days a week,’ and their bosses will allow them to do it,” said Sullivan. “Maybe they don’t have to use their car as much.”

Sullivan points out scientists have been warning for years about a potential world-wide pandemic, and here we are.

Now Sullivan wonders if more people might start listening to scientists concerns about the health of the planet.

“You know, we can’t shut down the world to stop air pollution, and stop global warming, I’m not suggesting that,” said Sullivan. “But maybe some of these small incremental changes we can live with.”

Studies examining the ecological impact of the shutdown have already begun.

But, the evidence is clear from the skies above Los Angeles and New York City, to the clear canals in Venice, Italy. You can even see it from orbit.

The question we have to ask ourselves, our employers and people we do business with, is: Can we do more with what we’ve just learned?