Scientists have been studying the unusual, global reduction of travel and mobility during COVID-19 lockdowns to understand how human activity affects the environment. Now, the researcher who coined the term “anthropause” to describe that hiatus wants experts to monitor the “anthropulse” of activity that will follow as pandemic restrictions are eased.
“We will likely find that making quite modest changes to our lifestyles, for example in our travel habits, will have significant benefits for other species,” Christian Rutz of the University of St Andrews’ Centre for Biological Diversity, and lead author of a new paper classifying the types of anthropauses, told The Energy Mix.
Rutz’s paper in the journal Nature builds on his past research in 2020, after the pandemic’s onset, when about 57% of the world’s population started spending more time at home rather than commuting to work or travelling. At the time, social media was buzzing with sightings of animals in unexpected places like town squares and busy shipping areas.
That led Rutz to propose the concept of “anthropause” to study the changes in human and wildlife interactions that were taking place. He described several projects—like his COVID-19 Bio-Logging Initiative and the PAN-Environment Working Group—as elements of a global effort to study these unusual animal responses to the sudden changes in human mobility patterns.
“This knowledge is not only worth billions of dollars, but it is also vital for shaping a sustainable future,” he wrote at the time.
As COVID-19 restrictions roll back in the coming months, the surge of human activity is likely to “cause substantial environmental damage,” Rutz writes in his new paper, and “the (partial) temporary reversal of lockdown conditions would enable powerful tests of causality.” This is not the first anthropause and anthropulse to take place in human history, he writes—other examples include nuclear exclusion zones in Chornobyl, Ukraine, Belarus, and Fukushima, Japan, as well as the Korean demilitarized zone and the 14th century Black Death pandemic in Eurasia and North Africa. But current research on the COVID-19 lockdowns would be the first opportunity for an in-depth analysis.
Rutz’s recent paper proposes a classification scheme for this research and clarifies some key definitions before pointing to future research needs and opportunities. Those needs include documenting the impacts of anthropulses and designing some form of “anthropause preparedness” given that “future diseases and other major perturbations seem inevitable.”
While his team’s analyses are still in progress, Rutz said the focus of his work is “to understand better what components of human activity affect wildlife the most,” whether that be travel habits that were curbed by lockdowns, or fixed human features like roads and buildings that remained. Because the effects of these different human activities are often confounded, the lockdowns offered “a rare opportunity” to study them separately.
Rutz said he hoped his findings would be used to evaluate “humanity’s impact on, and relationship with, nature”. While his previous work dealt primarily with wildlife research, he has deliberately expanded the scope of the anthropulse paper to discuss environmental impacts more broadly.
“As the world emerges from the tragic circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, our improved understanding of human–environment interactions must be used to plan for a more sustainable future,” he wrote.