Meet GeoHealth

How COVID-19 helped us understand the human, health, and Earth connection

Morgan Gorris is an Earth system scientist and post-doctoral fellow at Los Alamos National Laboratory, studying how weather and climate affect human health and infectious disease.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed our lives in ways big and small—from mask wearing and social distancing to childcare and videoconferencing—imposing fundamental shifts in how we lived, worked, attended school, and interacted with our loved ones. Not only did the pandemic change our individual lives; it changed the Earth, too. For example, less driving and a slow-down in factory production meant fewer carbon emissions, resulting in cleaner air. In Florida, loggerhead turtles laid more eggs thanks to deserted beaches. Wild boar roamed the streets of Barcelona and mountain goats wandered through a town in Wales. Changes in human activity also led to decreased ocean pollution, stressors on global fisheries, and human-caused seismic activity.

Although any changes in air quality or climate change are expected to be short-lived or minimal as emissions return to pre-lockdown levels, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Earth have provided the scientific community with lasting lessons. For scientists who study the environment, the pandemic has highlighted the importance of a scientific field called GeoHealth, which examines the complex connection between humans, health, and the Earth.

For example, GeoHealth researchers look at levels of pollutants which, depending on location, shed light on potential strategies for reducing pollution, but also can reveal persistent disparities in air pollution, exposure, and health outcomes.

Some studies have found that changes in air quality were unequal across regions, but also varied among racial distribution and household income within cities, highlighting that pollution disparities persisted despite the large-scale decreases in traffic emissions. Lessons learned from this natural experiment can lead to more equitable environmental policies beneficial to human health, for all humans, which is a primary focus for GeoHealth  research.

The Impacts on the Earth System of COVID-19

Apart from changes in our own behavior during the COVID-19 pandemic affecting the Earth system, Earth itself may also affect the pandemic. One of the largest areas of uncertainty in this regard is whether climate conditions will foster a seasonality in the transmission of COVID-19, similar to the flu.

Scientists have explored the effects of environmental variables like temperature, humidity, aerosol settling time, and UV radiation on COVID-19 dynamics. These environmental factors may affect the COVID-19 transmission rate directly, by impacting how long the virus remains viable, potentially “alive” outside a host or the human immune response, or indirectly by affecting human behavior. Identifying patterns between climate conditions and COVID-19 cases can shed light on environmental factors important for assessing disease risk.

Further research to understand the relationships between environmental factors and COVID-19 may inform more accurate forecasts of outbreaks and provide a knowledge basis for future emerging infectious diseases.

Disasters compounded

Major environmental disasters throughout the COVID-19 pandemic have posed a complicated risk for disaster response by presenting competing priorities for human health and safety. Consider planning for an emergency shelter, taking into account social distancing as a safety measure for COVID-19. With this in mind, one agency created a framework to test the negative health outcomes from the compounding hazard of the pandemic along with a tsunami, comparing the outcomes from enforcing different evacuation scenarios.

Research across other natural disasters from 2020-2021 has included the unprecedented wildfire seasons in Australia and the United States, the record-breaking Atlantic hurricane season, the deadly volcanic eruption in the Philippines, earthquakes, and flash floods—events that all coincided with a pandemic.

Continued research through the lens of GeoHealth can help resolve the negative health impacts related to each disaster, so that disaster response policies in the future can be better designed to deal with multiple health hazards.

Earth science has also played an important role in shaping public health policies to mitigate the global spread of COVID-19. At the beginning of the pandemic, public health agencies, including the World Health Organization, issued instructions on handwashing and social distancing to avoid infection, but early messaging lacked agreement upon the role of airborne virus transmission and hence slowed a mandate on wearing masks.

While airborne spread of COVID-19 was not initially recognized as a primary route of exposure by many countries, geoscientists, based on the observations that aerosolized droplets can remain infectious in indoor air and be easily inhaled deep into the lungs, advocated for increased measures designed to reduce aerosol transmission, including universal masking.

Among the lessons learned through the last many months is that GeoHealth researchers and other geoscientists must continue to clearly communicate their science in a way that illustrates the broader implications of their research, so that people can use it effectively to make personal life choices. Such groundbreaking work, through cross-disciplinary collaborations and communication during the pandemic, demonstrates the key role played by the GeoHealth community to shift the policy paradigm toward more effective disease control strategies. Given that we know pandemics are naturally recurring events, our goal is to ensure that lessons learned from COVID-19 will help prepare us for future disease outbreaks, and save lives in the process.

Morgan Gorris is an Earth system scientist and post-doctoral fellow at Los Alamos National Laboratory, studying how weather and climate affect human health and infectious disease.

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