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Issues Of The Environment: Earth Day Celebrates 50 Years! Part 2 - Looking Ahead During COVID-19

Apr 22, 2020

Dr. Jonathan Overpeck, dean of the U-M School for Environment and Sustainability
Credit University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability / seas.umich.edu

Today marks the 50th Earth Day in the United States, which traces its origins to Ann Arbor.  Normally, there would have been a huge celebration, but the coronavirus pandemic has put a halt to that.  For Part 2 of a special, Earth Day edition of "Issues of the Environment," WEMU's David Fair spoke with Jonathan Overpeck, dean of the U-M School for Environment and Sustainability.  They discuss an online celebration of Earth Day and look ahead to what the future may hold.  


EXPERTS ADVISORY: Earth Day @ 50: Insights From a Pandemic

While COVID-19’s staggering toll of human suffering continues to rise worldwide, the pandemic has enabled some scientists to study aspects of nature and the environment that weren’t possible before.  For others, the pandemic highlights the importance of essentials—access to clean air and water, regular contact with nature, the availability of food at grocery stories—that most of us usually take for granted.

University of Michigan experts are available to discuss insights from the pandemic and the special significance of the 50th Earth Day on April 22.

Jeroen Ritsema and Ben van der Pluijm of the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences are using seismometers inside the university’s football stadium and on its central campus to study the reduction in ground-motion noise following the cancellation of in-person U-M classes March 11 and the Michigan governor’s March 23 stay-at-home order, which took effect the following day.

Ritsema and van der Pluijm observed a 30% reduction in average weekly noise levels detected by the Michigan Stadium seismometer, which sits on the corner of two normally busy Ann Arbor streets, South Main Street and Stadium Boulevard.  A 50% reduction in average weekly noise was recorded in the North University Building on the U-M Central Campus.

The U-M findings are similar to noise reductions reported by seismologists around the world.  “It is now easier to hear Earth’s voice above the anthropogenic noise,” said Ritsema, a professor of geophysics.  “We might learn something about how anthropogenic noise affects the quality of our seismic recordings, and it may help us identify quieter locales for routine earthquake monitoring.”

“This coronavirus-driven stay-home order creates a unique situation in city noise conditions, similar to the reduction in atmospheric contrails due to less flying.  This special situation has piqued the interest of researchers around the world,” said van der Pluijm, a professor of geology and an expert on the societal impacts of geological hazards.

  • COVID Environmental impacts (air quality, etc)
  • Lessons from COVID on climate change
    • We have to listen to scientists and let science lead our actions
    • While COVID is happening, we need to realize that climate change is still happening and still getting worse
    • We need to take lessons from battling the pandemic and apply them to solving the climate crisis in a more proactive way.
    • COVID-19 connections to the environment - many see it as a result of exploitation of wildlife for human consumption and pursuit of short term gains for profits
  • U-M just launched two online learning opportunities related to Earth Day!  Free and open to the public for those who want to learn about Earth Day while social distancing.
  • Both will be available at Michigan Online
  • Earth Day at 50 teach out - live now 
  • Massive Open Online Course - Launch on Earth Day - Beyond the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): Addressing Sustainability and Development
    • Covers biggest sustainability challenges including Biodiversity, Climate change, Poverty and inequality (especially timely)
    • Answers questions like: How do we take knowledge and translate it into action on the ground? How do we learn from what's worked and apply it to places in need?

Jonathan Overpeck is an interdisciplinary climate scientist and the Samuel A. Graham Dean of the School for Environment and Sustainability.  He is an expert on paleoclimate, climate-vegetation interactions, climate and weather extremes, sea-level rise, the impacts of climate change and options for dealing with it.  Overpeck served as a lead author on the authoritative Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2007 and 2014 reports.

“A recent dramatic drop in air pollution in multiple parts of the globe has been observed from space and at street level,” he said.  “This drop stems from the rapid reduction in regional fossil fuel burning associated with transport and industrial activities, which in turn is the result of a rapidly slowing economy and whole populations of people isolating themselves at home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“While it’s important not to trivialize all the human suffering associated with this virus, there are key lessons in the observed drop in pollution levels.  First and foremost is the fact that climate-change action will by definition eliminate most of the pollution-causing fossil fuel burning.

“Fifty years after the first Earth Day, it is clear that environment and sustainability challenges are bigger than ever, both in the U.S. and around the planet.  We need to use this opportunity to rededicate ourselves to doing more, working harder and ensuring that we leave future generations an environment that is better than the one we inherited.  This means stopping climate change before it stops us.” 

(Source: *directly source* https://news.umich.edu/earth-day-50-insights-from-a-pandemic/)

Part One of the "Earth Day Celebrates 50 Years" edition of Issues of the Environment can be found here.

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at 734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him at dfair@emich.edu