Nature’s Big Year

When humanity hits pause, nature reboots. Scientists discover the surprising ways pandemic lockdowns affected our planet.
Available on CBC Gem

Nature’s Big Year

Nature of Things

When humans hunkered down to battle the COVID-19 and all our activities came to a crawl, nature never stopped. In many cases, it even welcomed our absence.

“I was shocked and completely amazed at how many species changed their habitat use during the pandemic,” says ecologist Nicola Koper at the University of Manitoba. She found remarkable new evidence that when humanity hit pause, nature seized the moment.

Cities around the world saw their bluest skies in years, sea turtles had their most successful nesting season in decades and, in the quiet of lockdown, birds changed where they fly and how they sing.

Nature’s Big Year, a documentary for The Nature of Things, follows scientists as they explore lockdown’s unique and unexpected research opportunities. They share what they learned from the most dramatic unplanned experiment in modern history, and how they rose to the challenge.

In Alberta’s Bighorn backcountry, ecologist Jason Fisher retrieved astonishing lockdown images from wildlife camera traps. “We were stunned to find out what wolves were doing during lockdown. They’re the apex predators, so their behaviour has a ripple effect on the entire food chain.”

Many of us may have noticed that bird sound different during the pandemic. Turns out, it wasn’t our imagination! Songbird specialist Miya Warrington reveals how male blackbirds in the U.K. added a more aggressive note to their repertoire when they could suddenly hear rivals —instead of the roar of traffic and airplanes.

The pandemic also changed where birds hang out. Dr. Koper reveals how different species — from bald eagles to ruby-throated hummingbirds — flocked to places with tighter lockdown measures. “We see changes across the whole bird community. It’s amazing we had this opportunity to learn from the lockdown.”

Research teams around the world noticed big changes. Marine biologist Justin Perrault logged record numbers of nesting Loggerhead sea turtles on a Florida beach during lockdown: “In the absence of humans, turtles were able to nest more naturally, like they have been throughout their tens of millions of years of evolutionary history.”

In Quebec, a team from Laval University discovered that migrating snow geese adapted almost overnight to changes in human behaviour. Biologists in the U.K. tracked hedgehogs during and after lockdown, helping to save one of Britain’s most beloved creatures from local extinction.

And Canadian atmospheric scientist Cora Young made a remarkable discovery that could change how we regulate air pollution. “We were shocked. In many big cities, that beautiful blue sky was hiding a nasty secret.”

Lockdown demonstrated the enormous impact humans have on the world. This research is a wake-up call, proving that nature can rebound when we shift our behaviour.

“As a human society, if we chose to change our behavior, then a lot of species would benefit from that right away,” says Dr. Koper.And we know this would work, because it already has.”
Watch Nature’s Big Year on The Nature of Things.