Last week, three astronauts left Earth on a mission to the International Space Station, where they’ll stay for six months. Like most of us, they spent weeks sheltering in place as COVID-19 swept its way across the globe. Leading up to their mission, all three faced strict quarantines to prevent the virus from derailing their trip, or worse, following them into space.
As these astronauts look down upon Earth from the space station, I wonder, can they see coronavirus engulfing the entire planet? As it happens, they can. No, not the virus itself, but the ripple effect of this pandemic in our communities and in the natural world. Empty streets. Deserted playgrounds. The absence of people, of life.
This Earth Day, I’m thinking about how fragile the Earth is, and how fragile we are as a population. One microscopic virus has closed entire countries and driven us all inside, feeling powerless against its spread.
Satellite image taken from the space station help us see the impact of the pandemic through the astronauts’ eyes. Beaches devoid of sunbathers. Highways without a car in sight. Parking lots emptied and turned into testing centers. The satellite images ominously signal an increasing downturn in the global economy. But there is another impact of the absence of humans and social distancing that the satellite images show: the Earth itself is feeling the effects of the pandemic. Venice’s usually choppy, muddy canal waters are now calm and clear. The smog-filled skies above China’s largest cities have cleared. A very thin silver lining amidst the doom and gloom of social distancing.
In our absence, Mother Nature has begun to heal itself. But when all of this is over, we’ll leave our homes. We’ll travel again, take vacations, visit theme parks. Those beaches will fill with sunbathers. Highways will clog, and air pollution will return.
Just a week after that shuttle launch, another mission brought the previous ISS crew of three astronauts home. They’d each been in space over 200 days. When they last stood on Earth, coronavirus wasn’t even a blip on our radars. They watched the virus unfold from far above the earth, seeing those highways and beaches and waterways clear in real-time. Their before-and-after pictures show the stark almost overnight change on Earth. Astronaut Jessica Meir’s Twitter feed often featured spectacular satellite images of cities, natural landscapes, clouds, moon, and planet Earth in its full glory. Now, they’re returning to a world of fear and uncertainty.
We’re learning a lot from this virus. How vital our essential workers are to our daily lives. How to spend time together at home. Some of us are honing our cooking skills or finally learning that new hobby we never had time for. And, hopefully, we’re learning some new ways to keep ourselves healthy from germs. But I hope that when this is over, we’ll also remember how fragile Earth and its ecosystems are. Let those clear waters and empty beaches be a wake-up call about the effect we have on the world around us and how we need to safeguard the environment to continue to enjoy our lives on Earth.
Read about Harini Sivakumar, a mompreneur and sustainability pioneer.