Imagine that you left earth before coronavirus and returned this week. That is pretty much what has happened to a team of 87 people on board the icebreaker Polarstern, who spent the past six months doing climate research in the Arctic and arrived back on land a few days ago.
The world greeting them is familiar, yet changed. Smiles have been replaced by masks; people avoid each other when walking down the street. And while the researchers were at sea, the topic they were studying — climate change and emissions — underwent the biggest shift in our lifetimes. With the world in lockdown, emissions will see their biggest drop this year since the second world war.
For the team who were on the icebreaker, it is a lot to take in. “On the Polarstern, we had only a very vague feeling about what actually the consequence of coronavirus on society is,” chief scientist Torsten Kanzow told me, recalling conversations with family over a patchy satellite connection. “There are lessons to be learnt, for sure; you can’t count on many things that you used to count on.”
For his group, those things included the fact that they were supposed to leave the icebreaker by aircraft in April — a runway had been built on the floating ice — but instead arrived two months later, by boat. He finally returned home on Monday.
The €140m project, known as the Mosaic Expedition, is one of the most ambitious polar research programmes ever undertaken. Many of their observations show, depressingly, that warming in the Arctic is still very much under way.
Climate change has not taken a break, even while coronavirus has ravaged the global economy and, sadly, hundreds of thousands of lives. One item of particular concern is that the expedition observed very low ozone levels, raising the question of whether this is linked to the ozone hole over the Arctic. (More analysis has to be done before they can say for sure.)
Even though carbon dioxide emissions have fallen considerably during the pandemic, this is just a small blip when measured on a planetary scale. The drop in emissions in 2020 — about 8 per cent down on last year — will just about put us on track to where we should have been anyway, if we are to reach the Paris agreement goal of limiting warming to 1.5C.
The earth’s atmosphere hardly noticed: concentrations of carbon dioxide hit a new record high last month. This may seem counterintuitive, but CO2 stays in the atmosphere for a long time — more than a century. As long as we keep pumping it into the air, it will keep accumulating there.
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Other data points gloomily in the same direction: this year saw the hottest May ever recorded by modern instruments. Meanwhile, Greenland has seen unusually high levels of melting ice this spring, suggesting more to come in the summer.
So if lockdown wasn’t enough to heal the planet, should we give up hope? It may seem bleak to think that even after all the aircraft stopped flying and normal life ground to a halt, the warming of the atmosphere still continued. Despite the popularity of satellite images showing cleared pollution in a handful of major cities, the state of the planet remains more or less the same.
But there is some good news. The pandemic has had a big impact on something that is foundational to addressing climate change — our values. Life under coronavirus has forced everyone to take collective action to protect each other’s health, and to realise that distant threats are worth preparing for.
As the team from the Polarstern adjusts to life back on land amid coronavirus, they may be surprised at how the most profound shifts brought about by the disease are those that are not immediately visible to the eye.
Lockdown has been an extended period of reflection, and made many prioritise collective safety over individual freedom. It is also the antithesis of the instant-gratification culture that used to fuel a lot of habits that were not very good for the environment, such as flying off for a weekend getaway, or shopping for fast fashion.
Many climate researchers and campaigners are quietly optimistic about a shift in attitudes that will benefit the climate in the long term. The pandemic has also been a chance to reimagine what our future might look like, since the future we were expecting has changed.
As for the Polarstern, there is now a new crew and a new group of researchers on board the icebreaker. The research will continue through the summer, until the scheduled end of the Mosaic expedition this October.
And when the final team of researchers return to land this autumn, what kind of new world will await them? It will probably be one in which coronavirus is not totally under control — and neither are global emissions. But it could be a world in which, even while warming continues, our mindset is at least more prepared to address climate change in the long term.
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