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Energy & Environment

Ecologist Discusses Environment Post-COVID

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Ecologist Anne Axel working in the field in Madagascar, studying the environment and soundscapes.

Pandemic lockdowns reduced air pollution in some places around the world but those changes weren’t as pronounced in Appalachia. Much of the air pollution from this region comes from industry and electric generation, as compared to driving.

One big change people have noticed, however, is the sounds they hear when they go outside. Eric Douglas spoke with Anne Axel, a Marshall University professor of ecology, to find out more.

Douglas: Because of COVID, we're not traveling, we're not flying. What are some of the changes we've seen over the last year, because of COVID, for the environment in general?

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Rick Lee
Marshall Ecology professor Anne Axel.

Axel: In general, there has been a decrease in air pollution globally. And there's been a decrease in noise pollution, which is kind of nice. We see more waste. More medical waste, more PPE, and more household waste. People are getting boxes coming to their homes.

With cities in China and big urban cities, there's been a report of a lot less pollution, but it's ending. If you look at satellite imagery, you can see that there's been a decrease in air pollution. But that doesn't necessarily mean that there's less air pollution everywhere on Earth.

There's less because there's a lot less traffic. So those pollutants that are coming out of tailpipes, or big industry, have slowed down. But in places like Appalachia, here in West Virginia, we haven't really seen as much of a decline in air pollution because our air pollution is tied to our industry: mining, industry, electricity, natural gas development. Those things really haven't slowed down during COVID lockdown.

Douglas: We've been in the pandemic over a year now and the lockdowns are easing up now. Are we going to return to where we were?

Axel: I suspect we will. There's a huge health advantage if we don't, because millions of people die from the effects of air pollution every year. If we could control air pollution, if we could keep levels down where they are now, it would save lives. But what is the incentive? We may have some control over that at the federal level here in the United States, but globally, we don't. And there would have to be an incentive for other countries to keep it at this level,

Douglas: One of the other things you've talked about, and you do some studies with, is sound pollution -- the soundscapes of Appalachia. What have you noticed, as far as sound throughout the pandemic?

Axel: What I've noticed, I think is what a lot of people have noticed. I hear the birds more. They seem to be louder. And a lot of people have reported that or, or there seem to be more of them. Some of that is perception, and some of it is actually shifts in the soundscape essentially.

The soundscape is basically an acoustic landscape. It's all of the noises, all of the sounds that are generated in a landscape. It includes the biological, so birds and insects and amphibians and people, but it also includes anthropogenic (man made) sounds and the sounds of wind and rain and such. If you reduce the amount of anthropogenic sounds, then that opens up spaces in the soundscape for animals. What we're finding is that they can make a pretty quick response and take advantage of those spaces in the soundscape.

Some researchers have found that there are shifts in their amplitude of the songs. And thus they carry further so that the songs of some birds are now traveling a further communication distance has increased, which means that we are hearing more birds than we normally would. So not only are we more perceptive, but we might also be hearing more birds than we would normally have heard.

Axel is associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Marshall University. Among other topics, she teaches landscape ecology and the analysis of satellite imagery. She explained that soundscape ecology is a sub-discipline of landscape ecology.


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