You’d expect a sharp decline in human activity—i.e., the lockdown most of the world endured—to have an environmental upside. But scientists studying the effects of our temporary absence have been surprised at how quickly and dramatically animals reacted.
As seen in Christine Nielsen’s documentary Nature’s Big Year, lockdown helped turtles nest more successfully on Juno Beach, Florida. When humans changed their habits, wolves and their prey shifted theirs. Sea lions basked on the streets in an Argentinian port, and wild goats romped through the streets of a Welsh seaside town.
Even the birds were talking louder and prouder. Chris Watson, David Attenborough’s frequent nature-sound recordist, noticed that the blackbirds on his property were, “singing more vigorously,” without human noise. His observations are bolstered by animal acoustician Miya Warrington, who analyzed the avian “conversation” on Watson’s property, comparing it with pre-pandemic levels.
An unprecedented study at the University of Manitoba revealed that many species of birds were attracted to communities with stronger lockdowns and a team from Laval University found that lockdown led to a fitter, fatter flock of migrating snow geese in 2020.
In one of the film’s most surprising revelations, atmospheric scientists were shocked to discover that those beautiful blue skies during lockdown were hiding a deadly secret. Ground-level ozone, a harmful invisible gas, accelerated as other pollutants dropped off.
Nature’s Big Year follows the scientists through the pandemic, as they discover the effects of the biggest controlled experiment of our time.
“When we started our research and filming, we had no idea where it would lead,” says writer/director Christine Nielsen. “As a producer, there are few things I find more unsettling than an uncertain conclusion—a situation where it’s impossible to know whether the results will be interesting or even relevant.
Some of those famous early stories were incorrect, or just plain fake. The cavorting dolphins weren’t anywhere near the canals of Venice—the photos had been taken hundreds of kilometres away. And some of the wild animals that appeared to be ‘taking back’ the streets were, in fact, looking for the absent tourists who they usually rely on for food.
What kept my team and I motivated was the support and enthusiasm of our participating scientists, and ultimately, their results …. Those results resonated deeply with me. Lockdown demonstrates the tremendous impact humans have on the world. It’s also a wake-up call. Nature can rebound and we can shift our behavior when we absolutely must.”
Watch Nature’s Big Year on CBC Gem.