Coronavirus: Is lockdown an opportunity for scientific research?
All around the world, the streets are empty, the air is clear and the seas are quiet. Is this an unexpected opportunity for scientific research?
The coronavirus pandemic is undoubtedly a tragedy. None of us could have wanted this, and none of us have escaped its impact, between illness, workplace closures and cancelled social events.
The world of science is no exception. Cancer Research UK, for example, expects to lose up to £120m in funding – a quarter of its donated income – this year as a result of charity shop closures.
However, there are some areas of science where lockdown is an unexpected opportunity. As the world shut down, researchers in many fields have been suddenly presented with conditions they’d never have been able to create in the lab.
Seismologist Dr Paula Koelemeijer has recorded a 25 per cent drop in seismic noise at her home in London since lockdown began. Every car, train and tube journey we skip contributes to a reduction in ‘anthropogenic’ (human-caused) seismic noise.
Koelemeijer uses seismic data to image structures inside the Earth. For her, less anthropogenic noise means better quality data. “If the recordings are too noisy due to anthropogenic noise or stormy weather […] Then you might throw away the data and not use it in your analysis,” she says. “For imaging with lower noise levels, you generally keep a larger volume of data.”
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A quieter Earth also means that detectors can pick up small quakes that would otherwise go unnoticed. “Picking up smaller events and characterising the background natural seismicity that way can be useful in locations where we haven't had any larger earthquakes because they still tell us what the background levels are,” explains Koelemeijer.
“And in city environments, this is generally very unknown because it's been too noisy to pick up these kinds of signals.”
Dr Nathan Merchant is a scientist at Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas) in the UK. He studies the impact of human noise on marine life, due to shipping and other off-shore activities.
Merchant expects to see a big drop in noise when restrictions lift and Cefas can collect their data. “We know that a lot of the off-shore activity is lower than it normally is, and so that is what we expect to see,” he says. “But of course, the proof is in the pudding.”
In the short-term, quieter oceans are a positive outcome on their own. “We know that some marine mammals experience physiological stress related to being exposed to noise,” Merchant says.
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Whales and dolphins use echolocation, which means they have sensitive hearing. As a result, sudden loud noises can cause haemorrhaging in the inner ear, and long-term noise from shopping and wind farms can drive them away from their usual safe habitats.
In the longer-term, though, the data Cefas gathers will be useful for its role in advising the government on measures to make the oceans quieter permanently.
“There will be an economic cost to making ships quieter, to making these off-shore activities quieter. What will be the benefits that we get in return?” he says. “So if we can understand more about those benefits […] We’re able to advise on much firmer ground in terms of the evidence.”
Stunning satellite pictures from ESA show air pollution melting away over Wuhan and Italy as lockdown took hold. The same happened in the UK. “There's definitely been some really clear changes in air quality that are obviously linked indirectly to coronavirus,” says Dr Mark Broomfield, air quality expert at Ricardo Energy & Environment.
There’s a variety of factors beyond traffic that determine how heavy air pollution is, including weather and seasonal changes, but also general day-to-day variation. This means it’s hard to tell if air quality on a particular day is better than expected.
“But if we compare, for example, this year to last year or the trend from previous years, you can definitely see really clearly reductions in pollution levels,” Broomfield explains. “So I'm pretty sure that the that the change that we're seeing now, at least in large part, is due to changes in activity.”
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In terms of air quality science, the difficulty isn’t the lack of data. “The problem is not so much knowing what to do, it's having the will and the support and the investments needed to do something,” Broomfield explains.
That’s what Broomfield hopes we’ll get out of lockdown: a desire to see our air quality stay this high. “Maybe a lot of the things that we used to think were essential, like commuting to work or flying around the world to go to meetings and that sort of thing, we’ll think, well, do we need that?” he says.
In fact, this may be starting to happen. London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan announced a plan at the beginning of May that would allow ‘unprecedented levels of walking and cycling’ following lockdown. While this plan is partly designed to allow better social distancing, it also is part of the Mayor’s plan for a ‘greener, cleaner, healthier future’.
It’s certainly happening elsewhere in the world. In Milan, 35 kilometres of roads are being converted into cycle paths, and residents of Delhi have been celebrating the remarkably clean air since lockdown began.
“[Lockdown] is not the solution,” Sunita Narain, director of India’s Centre for Science and Environment, told The Guardian. “But whatever the new normal is post-COVID-19, we have to make sure we take this breath of fresh air and think about the serious efforts we need to deal with pollution in Delhi.”
Not all science is done by university professors with million-pound equipment. Some of the most valuable data is gathered by interested members of the public. These citizen scientists can collect information from home, whether it’s counting insects or measuring rainfall, and build a much wider picture than one research group could alone.
“We’re using data from people that have seismometers in their homes,” says Dr David Cornwell, a geophysicist at the University of Aberdeen.
Cornwell believes that lockdown is moving scientific collaboration online, which allows researchers like him to connect more with citizen scientists. “That linking of professional projects with citizen science is great,” he says. “And what we're hoping is that we can build on it, start some projects, and to inspire some, particularly kids, to do this kind of thing.”
If you want to get involved with some citizen seismology, the British Geological Survey has a number of projects you can take part in. Or if seismology isn’t your thing, there’s a wide variety of projects available via the Natural History Museum, NASA, and BBC Sky at Night presenter Chris Lintott’s Zooniverse.