Coronavirus impacts Island environment

Pedestrians walk along an empty West Basin Road in Aquinnah. —Chloe Combra

Around the world, especially in major polluting cities, decreases in air pollution and coinciding environmental and ecological benefits have been reported due to recent stay-at-home orders and social distancing guidelines. With COVID-19 keeping cars off the road, airlines in low demand, and Steamship Authority trips down by half on Martha’s Vineyard, the pandemic has introduced environmental effects that are visible through local research studies.

Social distancing and the closure of essential businesses has naturally resulted in less movement from Island residents. According to a study done by Unacast, a analytics company that collects and provides cell phone location data analysis, Dukes County has experienced a 94% decrease in human encounters and a reduction of 55-70% in the average mobility, based on distance traveled. 

The only air quality monitoring being done on the Island at this time is by the Wampanoag Tribe, which monitors ground level ozone and Fine Particle [PM2.5] levels. With roughly 17,000 year-round residents and no real source of heavy pollution, there is uncertainty around the kinds of local changes or environmental impacts that can be expected on the Island as a result of the coronavirus. 

Andrew Jacobs, the Wampanoag Tribe’s environmental technician and laboratory manager, said that despite the Vineyard’s rural setting and lack of industrial pollution, the Island is actually the only place in all of Massachusetts that exceeds the pollution level and air quality guidelines set by the United States Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] to begin with. 

“We don’t actually produce any kinds of pollutants [on Martha’s Vineyard],” Mr. Jacobs said. “You can actually see through the different weather patterns, it comes over from more industrial areas and more metropolitan areas.”

This means that even if improvements in air quality levels on Martha’s Vineyard were shown, it could be attributed to a decrease in other regions’ pollution levels with nothing having changed on the Island. 

Although there have been no changes regarding air quality levels since Massachusetts’ stay-at-home order was implemented, Mr. Jacobs said it was not a matter of if, but a matter of when we would see these changes.  

Looking at the Island’s levels of ozone right now won’t show any variation, as this can only be seen during summer months when levels peak. To determine if there has been any impact on the environment’s ozone and air pollution levels Mr. Jacobs said, “If we did not have those high spikes [during summer], like we usually do, we could consider that this was a good air quality year.”

While air quality and pollution levels are expected to take a temporary turn for the better, the ecology aspect of the environment may experience some potential drawbacks. Liz Olson, the Wildlife Biologist and assistant director at Biodiversity Works MV, explained that while getting out in nature and into some fresh air is great, it can prove detrimental to many nesting and migratory bird species.

With more foot traffic than usual on beaches and trails, conservation organizations like Biodiversity Works MV, The Trustees, and the Land Bank have had to be more proactive by implementing their habitat-protection practices earlier. 

“Usually we don’t put up our signs until mid-April,” Ms. Olson said. “What we have done is put up our fences earlier so people know that the birds are here, that they’re trying to nest.”

This ensures that the foot traffic’s initial impact on local wildlife populations won’t be detrimental enough to have a long-lasting impact on the species.

On a more positive ecological note, the economic crash has created beneficial research opportunities into wildlife behavior and ecology, specifically marine life. With the reduction in shipping, cruises, and travel to the Vineyard, the ocean is more quiet. 

Jeremy Houser, an ecologist at the Vineyard Conservation Society said, “[This] is allowing scientists to observe the behavior of marine mammals in something that more closely resembles the real world that they evolved in, not the one we’ve created in the last hundred years.”

Our spring roadkill levels will also see a decrease due to the coronavirus. “This is a time of year when snakes and turtles are coming out onto roads,” according to Ms. Olson. “If there are fewer people on the roads, there’ll be less roadkill.”  

Less car traffic isn’t the only decrease in transportation Martha’s Vineyard has been experiencing. The long-polluting Steamship Authority [SSA] boats have also cut services down from about 30 to only seven daily boats running during the week, and 10 on weekends, after seeing a 85% decrease in passengers. Additionally, the MVY airport has also seen a large decrease in passengers following Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker’s stay-at-home order.

While this reduction in carbon dioxide and harmful gas emissions may provide temporary relief, the real question is if this hiatus from pumping harmful pollutants into the environment will be enough to create a lasting impact.

Environmental science teacher Debra Swanson said, “I think, even now, this [reduction in gas emissions] isn’t substantial enough to make any difference. If we don’t sustain it, then it’s not going to have much impact.”

However, Ms. Swanson also said that while no permanent changes may come, this opens the door for people to rethink the idea of biophilia, a human tendency to interact with other forms of life in nature. “Our connection to nature is indispensable. It’s essentially linked to our health and our economic disparity and our quality of life and so on,” Ms. Swanson said.

This may, in turn, lead to gaining ground in environmental protection policy and laws. “One opportunity we have now,” said Ms. Swanson, “is to reevaluate how we interact with nature. Re-develop an appreciation and an awareness of nature, and the importance of conserving its life-supporting systems. This may give us the opportunity to reconsider policy and how we can make policy match our values.”