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Restoring ecosystems in a post-pandemic world

June 04, 2020

By George Athanasakes

As people emerge from lockdown and industries ramp up, how can we design ecosystems that will better absorb stress?

Water you can see through in the canals of Venice, Italy. Clear air over cities like New Delhi and Los Angeles. Birds migrating unfettered by airplane traffic. These are just some of the effects we’ve seen as global economies have ground to a halt during the COVID-19 pandemic. Industries shut down, airplanes were grounded, and the number of vehicles on roads dwindled. Global carbon dioxide emissions are expected to drop by nearly 6% this year, according to the Center for International Climate Research.

While it’s nice to see a silver lining in the unprecedented coronavirus pandemic, the fact is once people reemerge from lockdown and industry and travel ramp up, we’ll see pollution levels rise. Those images of clear skies and waterways will become a memory. This is not surprising. People are stressors on the planet.

Here’s the important part: An ecosystem in balance can handle that stress. So, in a post-pandemic world, how can we design ecosystems that will better absorb the stress humans cause? What can we do to maintain the improvements we’ve seen when humans are out of the picture? 

Imagine the impact significantly increasing our forests—like Deer Grove Forest Preserve Restoration in Cook County, Illinois—could have on maintaining COVID-19 air-pollution levels into the future.

Breathe deeply

Our air is cleaner thanks to a drastic reduction in travel and transport. But, as economies around the globe begin a slow, cautious reopening, we can expect air pollution to ramp up along with commerce.

How can we counter this? By restoring forest habitat and planting more trees. Trees absorb carbon from the atmosphere, cutting pollution and sequestering carbon. One acre of new forest can sequester about 2.5 tons of carbon annually. According to “The global tree restoration potential” report published in Science magazine, there is suitable land to increase the world’s forest cover by one-third without impacting cities or agriculture. Imagine the impact significantly increasing our forests could have on maintaining the cleaner, COVID-19 air-quality levels into the future.

Stream restoration techniques help ensure clean, healthy river ecosystems. Pictured is the Hatchery Creek Stream Restoration project in Kentucky.

Nature’s kidneys

If the planet Earth is a living, breathing, organism, then our wetlands and water systems function as the planet’s kidneys, filtering and cleaning water and returning it to the system where it circulates.

Right now, those kidneys are functioning much better than they were pre-pandemic. Why? Because of fewer vehicles on the road and fewer pollutants being put into the environment. When rain comes through and splashes along roads and parking lots, it is much cleaner because there is less pollution being washed away. To keep that cleaner water moving through the system, we must—in effect—design and build more kidneys. That is, we need to design and build the wetlands and storm water management systems that help to filter and treat water.

For example, in a parking lot, where rainwater runoff is clearer and cleaner with less traffic, we can design and install treatments at the outfall—such as stormwater treatment wetlands—that filter and enhance water quality. That’s just one method that can help strengthen the Earth’s “kidneys.”

Stream restoration

Let’s get back to the beautiful city of Venice and its newly clear canal waters. The fact is Venice’s canals were originally designed for the transportation of the city’s citizens. They were not intended to handle the intense boat traffic that comes with millions of tourists. That traffic kicks up waves, stirs sediment and brings it to the top of the water’s surface.

Redesigning the famous canals to handle extensive boat traffic is just not feasible. But we can improve our ecosystems in a post-COVID world by restoring streams and rivers to lessen the same effect of the stirring of sediment we see in Venice. 

The return to higher air and water pollution need not be inevitable—not if we invest in restoring thriving ecosystems right now.

How do we do that? There are multiple ways. For streams and rivers, we can plant native vegetation on stream banks to prevent soil erosion, this helps to reduce sediment and keep the water clearer. Vegetation also absorbs carbon and the shade it provides helps to regulate water temperatures, which contributes to a healthier aquatic environment.

Designing floodplains also helps. When a river can readily and frequently access its floodplain during storm events, the stress on the riverbanks is greatly lowered, which reduces erosion. When we restore a river’s ecosystem, we also avoid placing riprap or large rocks on banks, which can reduce shading and increase water temperatures and make the water too hot for important organisms to live. By designing a stream or river with pools and riffles, we create healthy habitats, like deep pools for fish cover and shallow areas for invertebrates. These and other stream restoration techniques help create clean, healthy river ecosystems.

The return to higher air pollution and water pollution after COVID-19 restrictions are eased need not be inevitable. Pictured: Perico Preserve Restoration.

What does the future look like?

While the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns around the globe have temporarily decreased the stress humans create on the planet’s ecosystems, it will return. It is inevitable.

But the return to higher air and water pollution need not be inevitable—not if we invest in restoring thriving ecosystems right now. The United Nations has declared 2021-2030 the “Decade of Ecosystem Restoration.”

Ecosystem restoration benefits water, land, people, and our planet’s resilience, enhancing biodiversity and spurring economic growth. Designing healthy, functioning ecosystems will go a long way to righting some of the wrongs on our planet—now and after the pandemic. Learn more about ecosystem restoration.

  • George Athanasakes

    George is the driving force behind some of the nation’s biggest stream restoration projects.

    Contact George
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