What satellites have seen
During the most drastic months of lockdown we have observed forgotten or unusual aspects of nature, but satellites have seen much more, especially in the water. The pandemic has allowed us to obtain data from nature with less pollution and science has taken the opportunity to find more answers. We need them.
NASA has monitored the number and status of key crops around the world for one of its satellite studies. Image Mississippi River. ©NASA Landsat.
The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the severe social and economic gaps we face, and has shown the damage we have caused to the environment. Climate news have deteriorated year by year and month by month. Every time we look deeper and more closely at nature, we discover further decline. Questions arise and we need more and more answers. According to the European Environment Agency (EEA), environmental degradation is the first factor that explains the latest pandemics and we will need more vaccines and universal treatments.
The threat is real and undeniable, but so is the increase of international awareness of the importance of relying on science to progress towards solutions. In spite of skeptical and revisionist movements, confidence in scientific methods has permeated most governments and institutions, as well as public opinion and the urgency in finding answers has become widespread.
Water in satellite view
Paradoxically, the pandemic has shown us interactions and degradation with the environment s were not aware of and has opened new doors to science; more problems have become evident, while new theories and areas of experimentation have appeared.
A good example is NASA’s initiative to make satellite data obtained during the most drastic lockdown months in industrial societies available to scientists. The human footprint on air and water quality has been revealed by default in ecosystems and the U.S. space agency has decided to fund various environmental research projects. Four of them make direct reference to the water cycle and address essential issues for the mitigation of the climate and environmental crisis and our adaptation to its consequences.
Water-air exchanges: we do not know everything
One of the main effects of the reduction of economic activity was the decrease in the emission of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) into the atmosphere and, as a consequence, its deposition in water. In general, an overabundance of nitrogen and other chemicals causes eutrophication of river and coastal waters due to the excessive growth of algae, which has a negative effect on the water quality and ecological balance.
One of the projects aims to study the behavior of coastal aquatic ecology during the reduction of eutrophication, using new data of the changes in atmospheric conditions and water quality. The findings can be very useful, especially in the industrialized world, to deepen the understanding of the exchange of nutrients and pollutants between air and water, a process we know relatively little about, and thus improve the political and economic responses towards more efficient regulations.
According to a recent UN report, 9.7 billion people will inhabit the Earth by 2050. That will be 2 billion more than today, a number equivalent to the entire population of India, United States, Russia and Japan in 2019. Whether they will be able to feed themselves, have access to water and have renewable resources to produce the necessary goods for life is uncertain. Uncontrolled global warming, the degradation of the environment and pandemics threaten a dystopian future for a humanity that is barely making progress towards the SDGs in 2030 and is wondering how it will reach the mid-century.
It is only by better understanding the consequences of the unsustainable that we can pave the way to sustainability. Environmental science makes us see the inevitable interconnection between all the variables the evolution of life on Earth depends on. Our health and that of the planet are related, so much so that it would be convenient to consider they are one and the same. It is urgent for us to find answers to transcend the uncertainty that the deterioration we have caused to the planet leads to. We need science and its method to know how to.