How Not Traveling Is Helping the Planet
Tourism is big business around the world. The World Tourism Organization found 1.4 billion people traveled in 2018 — just on vacation. Add to that the business travel, daily commuters and day-to-day moving about in our own communities, and it's safe to say that people across the world are really on the go.
But what happens when all of that movement stops? As this global pandemic shutters cities with curfews and lockdowns to protect its citizens, it may also be protecting Mother Earth in the process.
From satellite images to people posting about bluer skies and near-empty streets in places like New York, not traveling may actually prove that human impact on the planet is greater than we imagined. Just see for yourself.
China's population is more than 1.4 billion people, with the majority of its people living in the east in cities like Beijing. It's also the world's fourth most-visited country with 142 million inbound trips in 2019.
The top destination for tourists? Beijing and The Forbidden City, where palaces of two dozen of China's emperors lived and ruled.
Prior to China's original Wuhan outbreak of the coronavirus (COVID-19), Tropospheric Monitoring Instruments on the European Space Agency's (ESA) Sentinel-5 satellite imaging showed nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels heavy over Chengdu, Guangzhou, Shanghai and especially Beijing and cities surrounding it.
The toxic gas causes difficulty breathing, and it is estimated nearly 1 million people die prematurely due to pollution.
Once China went into lockdown over the coronavirus outbreak on Jan. 23, 2020, the ESA's Sentinel-5 satellite images showed significantly lower levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2).
While it is a plus, not all air quality is better, as NASA's satellites showed heavy aerosols in the air over the same area.
One of the world's top travel destinations is the canal city of Venice, Italy. The city is made up of 118 small islands connected via bridges in an area of 160 square miles.
Receiving around 20 million visitors per year, the city has been struggling with its growing tourism that included multiple cruise-ship stops releasing thousands of passengers per day into its narrow streets.
Venice has 26 miles of canals and waterways, with 150 canals running through the city's little islands.
Visitors have oft been surprised by the stench coming from the polluted waterways with debris, seaweed, dead fish and trash commonly found, especially during low tides.
Since Italy began its lockdown, and Venice has been deserted of its crowds, pictures from the city have emerged to show just how quickly wildlife reclaims what is theirs.
The murky, dark waters have become crystal clear, illuminating the fish living below. Swans have also been seen swimming and feeding in the narrow canals.
The Rest of Italy
But Venice is only one of many Italian destinations for tourists to visit. Rome, Florence, Pompeii, Portofino, the Amalfi Coast, Sicily, Tuscany, Pisa — Italy is the fifth most-visited country with more than 58 million in 2019.
That number nearly doubles the country's population.
Italy lies south of the Alps, where factory smog and pollution can get trapped, as is shown in this image of the country by the ESA before it went on lockdown on March 9, 2020.
In less than a week, pollution in Northern Italy dropped by nearly 40 percent, according to the Copernicus Atmosphere Service.
In Rome, the country's capital city, the levels were 35 percent lower.
California is one of the United States' most-visited states, and it is easy to see why. Highlights include a coastline stretching 840 miles, Disneyland and other amusement parks, and fabulous cities like San Francisco, San Diego and Los Angeles.
Los Angeles alone had more than 50 million visitors in 2018!
However, Los Angeles' notorious traffic jams across highways that span up to 12 lanes has led to high Air Quality Indexes, with pollution particles so large it could make breathing troublesome and high Ozone (O3) levels trapping higher levels of ultraviolet radiation.
Los Angeles' smog is so bad it has been ranked one of the worst in the country. This ESA Sentinel-5 satellite picture shows the mega-city, along with San Diego, the San Francisco Bay Area, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, Phoenix and Denver on Jan. 20, 2020.
Since California went into lockdown, traffic on Los Angeles highways has dropped so significantly that all levels of air quality have improved.
In two months, the high levels of nitrogen dioxide and urban pollution dropped out of the red across California and the rest of the Southwest.
New York City beckons visitors from around the world and is the No. 1 destination in the U.S. for tourism. More than 65 million people visited the City That Never Sleeps in 2018, with numbers steadily rising year over year.
More than 8.6 million people live in the city, with commuters from Connecticut, New Jersey and New York suburbs bringing in 1.6 million people per day.
New York: Before
All of that commuter, residential and tourism traffic certainly has an effect on the air quality in New York, as well as the Tri-State region.
This satellite picture from January shows that the heaviest pollution in the Northeast Corridor of the U.S. surrounds New York City.
New York: After
By March, the virus shut down the city. Satellite pictures revealed a significant change in air quality.
Carbon monoxide emissions were reduced by nearly 50 percent!
Serving as the central stomping ground for business conferences, travel and more, Chicago broke its travel record in 2018 — 58 million visitors.
Nearly 3 million people live in the city, and more than 1.2 million commute here daily.
Those commuters, travelers and residents have a similar effect on air quality as New York City.
In the Midwest, Chicago leads in nitrogen dioxide–filled air, as seen on this satellite photo taken on Jan. 20.
Yet the COVID-19 lockdown practically erased the nitrogen dioxide in the city by March 20.
A country of 1.3 billion people, India had more than 10.5 million tourists in 2018, the majority of whom visited Delhi and Mumbai.
India has experienced high pollution in its cities. Of the cities found to have the worst air quality, according to the IQAir AirVisual's 2019 World Air Quality Report, six of the world's 10 worst offenders are in India.
The absolute worst in the world? The capital city of New Delhi's air quality reached over 110 micrograms in 2019 — nine times higher than what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency deems healthy.
In Mumbai, NO2 levels reached nearly 60 micrograms per square meter just before March 30.
When India enforced a curfew lockdown, the numbers plummeted to below 20 micrograms and continued to fall daily, with skies clearing dramatically in Mumbai as well as across the nation.
France is the most-visited country in the world, estimating that it would have hit 100 million tourists by the end of 2020. Its capital, Paris, received more than 40 million visitors in 2018 and is the world's third most-visited city.
Despite those numbers, the population of the city is actually smaller than most: a mere 2.2 million.
Paris' air quality reached a 68 on the air quality monitor by Airparif, with high levels of carbon dioxide.
Even underground, Paris experiences severe pollution with the Metro air being up to 30 times more polluted than the air found on the streets.
Just four days after Paris shut down, the city witnessed its cleanest sky of the year. In one day, the air quality dropped from a 68 to a 27.
In two days, nitrogen oxide levels fell 60 percent, with air quality improving by up to 30 percent.
Another country grappling with overtourism is Spain. The capital, Madrid, receives 6 million tourists a year (practically mirroring its population).
But along its coast? Barcelona brings in more than 20 million visitors by plane, train, car and ship — and the city is only made up of 1.6 million residents!
France's neighboring Iberian Peninsula cities, particularly Barcelona and Madrid, also experience high levels of nitrogen dioxide.
The Copernicus Sentinel captured this image of Spain and Portugal in early March.
By mid-March, when the lockdown began, Barcelona's levels fell by 83 percent, Madrid's fell by 73 percent and Valencia's fell by 64 percent.
Falling just behind Paris in tourism is England's capital city: London. More than 19 million people visited in 2018.
However, London is much bigger than Paris by population. Nearly 9 million people live in London, with 2 million people, including commuters, using the Tube every single day.
Two million travelers by Tube per day may sound staggering, but London is also flanked with automobile and boat traffic as well as air traffic through Heathrow and nearby Gatwick airports.
It is estimated that nearly 40,000 people die earlier than they should in the U.K. each year due to its air pollution.
In less than two weeks from its original lockdown, London's air quality showed significant improvements, including its fine particle numbers, which are nearly half of what has been the average between 2015 and 2019.
Cruising had been steadily increasing in popularity, with Royal Caribbean alone recording more than 6.5 million passengers in 2019. Environmentalists began raising flags on the industry's C02 emissions.
A report examining cruise lines found Carnival Corporation's cruises produced 10 times the sulfur oxide found on European coastlines — more than all of the 260 million cars on the continent.
With cruise ships confining large groups of people into tight spaces resulting in a number of passengers sickened by the virus, the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) suspended port operations across the U.S. on March 13.
Although it is too soon to see the impact the lockdown has had on the environment, it has been reported that .82 tons of C02 is emitted per passenger on average, so the less at sea, the less emissions.
Live Events: Before
Ballgames and concerts at stadiums and arenas can produce tons of trash. The Environmental Protection Agency found a college football game, for example, can produce 50 to 100 tons of garbage.
Coachella, the annual music festival held outside of Palm Springs, California, reported 107 tons of waste per day — with the festival spanning six days over two weekends.
Live Events: After
Since the virus outbreak, basketball, baseball, tennis, concerts and more have been canceled in an effort to avoid large gatherings of people where COVID-19 can spread.
This means a reduction of the waste produced in stadiums, arenas and festival park areas.