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A View of COVID-19 from the Future

Trash of medical face masks and gloves on the ground
Gomanchuk Zhanna/Shutterstock

Most of the world’s COVID-19 focus is logically planted in the present, as researchers around the globe seek to untangle the mysteries of the disease. But a group of researchers from the University of Leicester has posed the question: “What will COVID-19 look like to geologists in the far future?”

Writing in The Conversation, an independent nonprofit news provider, Rachael Holmes
and Alice Fugagnoli, both Ph.D. researchers in Geology, and palaeobiology professor Jan Zalasiewiczm, make some interesting predictions about what marks the current pandemic will leave on the Earth for future scientists to uncover.

Technofossils

The most obvious (and unfortunate) impact, looks to be the buildup of certain “technofossils,” a term that was coined in 2014 by Zalasiewiczm and a colleague, which refers to the man-made items humans are leaving behind that will eventually become part of the fossil record. It includes everything from ballpoint pens to bridges. 

In this case, the researchers say that while there won’t be any direct evidence of the virus in the far future (as viruses don’t fossilize), there will be plenty of gloves and masks for one-day geologists to find—many of which are already contributing to our global “Plastic Waste Footprint.” These could be found as rocks formed under sediment at the bottom of lake and riverbeds, or at the bottom of our oceans where so-called “plastic islands” will eventually sink to the bottom and get covered in sea mud.

“For our lifetimes, and many generations into the future, this will be a huge environmental problem that adds to the millions of kinds of technofossils we already produce,” write the researchers. “In the far future, it increases the chances of the events of 2020 being picked up in a fossil signal by some sharp-eyed paleontologist.”

Green Tape Removal

Another negative result of COVID’s impact on ecology is potentially the destruction of more threatened species around the world as economies do whatever it takes to get back to business, regardless of environmental protections. 

“Legislation associated with a “Build, Build, Build scheme in the UK that cuts protections for wildlife, could put protected animals like the great crested newt – a drag on the economy, according to prime minister Boris Johnson—at risk,” write the scientists. “That would be a poignant marker of the fallout from COVID-19 as governments globally attempt to increase production. Removal of ‘green tape’ in infrastructure projects to boost the economy would likely see the quicker demise of more threatened species, too, to hasten the mass extinction event currently underway.”

Good News?

While the increase in plastic waste and potential destruction of more species is environmentally troubling, COVID’s impacts aren’t all bad, ecologically speaking. The researchers write that carbon and nitrous oxide emissions are down a tiny bit, a fact that will one day show up in the fossil record in polar ice cores. With less industry, the air has also been cleaner, which could lead to a thin layer of lake sediment showing fewer fossilized smoke particles one day.

And the researchers hope that the trend toward lower carbon might continue as the virus fades into the background. If it does, they say, then not only would lower carbon and other greenhouse gasses be seen as a blip in ice cores, but the stabilized temperatures it would create will show up in tree rings, stalagmites and corals around the world, showing that humans did, indeed, get a grip on the ever-warming planet. 

“The future is not yet set in stone,” say the researchers, “but in the very long run, the rocks will tell the story of which road we collectively take.”