By Mark Quigley, Associate Professor of Earthquake Science, School of Earth Sciences at The University of Melbourne.

Earth scientists have the potential to draw on their own experiences and knowledge of geophysical and meteorological disasters to contextualize the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, to develop innovative approaches to mitigate the effects, and to see opportunities amongst the many global challenges and adverse effects of this pandemic.

The severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) and its associated coronavirus disease (COVID-19), collectively referred to here as “COVID-19” emerged of probable zoonotic origin (i.e., involving viral transmission from animals to humans) in China’s Hubei province in mid-November to early December 2019.

COVID-19 has rapidly spread to infect more than 1 million people and cause more than 58,000 fatalities around the world.

As of early April 2020, most of the world’s approximately 25,000 universities, including all universities with top 500 ranked earth science departments, have greatly restricted or closed on-campus activities and are enacting remote teaching and research approaches using a variety of digital communication technologies.

Within this context, an earth science perspective on several aspects of COVID-19 may be useful.

Exponential growth and risk reduction

The exponential growth of COVID-19 infections (Figure 1) has many similarities with earth science phenomena including:

These may assist us to broaden our understanding of earth history, by enabling us to compare our contemporary observations of the rate of COVID-19 spread against other phenomena.

It may also enable us to consider how concepts such as disaster risk reduction, commonly applied to earth science phenomena such as earthquakes, are also relevant in the case of COVID-19 (i.e., staying indoors and using social distancing to reduce transmission of the disease (the hazard), our exposure to it, and rates of incidence in elderly or those with pre-existing health conditions (the vulnerability).

Projected COVID-19 U.S. fatalities and their comparatives

COVID-19 impacts on human life, societal function, and economics (including dramatic impacts on health, educational and business sectors) have many contemporary comparatives of geophysical and meteorological origin.

Figure 1: Cumulative confirmed U.S. COVID-19 deaths as of 2 April 2020 and future projections to 1 September 2020 under weak, moderate, and strong mitigation scenarios using the University of Basel COVID-19 epidemiological simulation tool ( Selected geophysical, meteorological, terrorism, and epidemic deaths for selected events are shown relative to the COVID-19 projections.
Figure 1: Cumulative confirmed U.S. COVID-19 deaths as of 2 April 2020 and future projections to 1 September 2020 under weak, moderate, and strong mitigation scenarios using the University of Basel COVID-19 epidemiological simulation tool ( Selected geophysical, meteorological, terrorism, and epidemic deaths for selected events are shown relative to the COVID-19 projections.

Projections of COVID-19 U.S. domestic fatalities range from more than 2.5 million (weak mitigation scenario) to ~40,0000 (strong mitigation scenario) with a recently stated range of 100,000 to 200,000 expected fatalities (Figure 1). This is comparable to fatalities from contemporary disasters including:

  • the 2010 Haiti earthquake (~316,000),
  • 2008 tropical cyclone Nargis in Myanmar (~140,000),
  • 2008 Wenchuan earthquake in China (~88,000),
  • 2005 Kashmir earthquake in Pakistan (~88,000),
  • the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami (~230,000), and
  • the 1991 Bangladesh cyclone (~138,000 fatalities).
  • Long-term impacts on human health from climate fluctuations (150,000 deaths/yr)

Cumulative U.S. fatalities from the HIV/AIDS epidemic are also a useful comparative (~675,000 deaths).

Comparing forecasted COVID-19 domestic impacts with these realized extreme events (often in impoverished countries, and often with economically disabling long-term effects), might assist in building awareness and compassion for so many of our planet’s residents, who deal with ‘extreme events’ much more frequently.

University closures, remote learning, and educational resilience

In relation to worldwide university closures, an earth science perspective might also be of benefit. For example, there are many relevant examples of crisis-related university closures that could be considered:

  • The University of Canterbury in New Zealand’s South Island closed three times due to strong earthquakes that wreaked havoc in Christchurch between 2010 and 2011, including a 4-week closure in the middle of the teaching semester.
  • The 2011 Tohuku earthquake in Japan caused severe damage and closures to thousands of schools including more than 200 universities. Universities closed for several months, exams were postponed, and tuition waivers were granted.
  • Many Chinese universities including Peking University closed during the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) pandemic in 2003.
  • Several U.S. universities closed during Hurricane Katrina and Tropical Storm Allison.

In all examples, these universities delivered their teaching curriculum effectively, ensured continuity in research, made alternative educational arrangements where needed, and effectively rebounded from their interruptions, as proxied from indicators such as student numbers, university rankings, and finances. Undoubtedly there are many stories of how students, researchers, and teachers have been negatively impacted by COVID-19. However, the examples above are stories of educational resilience that may be useful to better frame our perspective.

Remote teaching and learning technology, expertise, and access has exploded in the wake of COVID-19 virus emergence. As we create innovative solutions, it is worth pondering, will things return to ‘normal’ once infection rates reduce and we return to work? And is this what we want?

The creation and sharing of more ‘virtual’ geological worlds and teaching materials may, ironically, enable earth scientists to see and analyze more of the world (virtually) than ever before. While no virtual field camp can replicate the smell of the camp fire following a long day in the field, the elation of finding that Rosetta stone outcrop, and the physical challenge of ascending steep rocky cliffs, the enrichment of the digital earth may improve global knowledge in ways that were previously not possible, including the potential for broader cross-institutional sharing of virtual material and experiences.

In the face of reducing undergraduate student lecture attendance and engagement, it may also be possible that the digital solutions being developed are more in tune with what contemporary students actually want instead of face-to-face lectures, and perhaps need, to learn more effectively.

The universities and institutions that house earth scientists may also consider their physical footprints, operational models, and expenditures in the post-COVID world. Earth science data collection instruments and laboratories are increasingly operable remotely and staffing requirements may increasingly diminish. Graduate research teams are now being run remotely to practice social distancing. Research article submissions, peer reviews, editorial decisions, and publications show no significant departures from pre-COVID rates or volumes at present.

Using COVID-19 challenges to increase science accessibility

The cancellation of face-to-face earth science conferences, workshops and advisory meetings has stimulated many to seek digital solutions to participating in these events.

With many earth scientists cognizant of their predicament as both earth advocates and emission-spouting earth travelers, it is possible that many of these events could move more permanently into the virtual space, and that many earth scientists would support these shifts.

An important benefit could include increased virtual accessibility of conferences and workshops to scientists from under-privileged communities who may not be able to afford to travel. In addition to increasing the diversity of conferences to broader benefit, providing better science access to the developing world is essential to enable new science leaders to lead efforts to combat climate change and reduce disaster risks. Internet-based citizen science projects might also assist earth scientists to reach broader audiences.

Deep time perspectives and taking advantage of reductions in human noise and pollution

The study of ancient viruses (paleovirology) has provided evidence for intra-organism viral elements in Palaeozoic (550-450 million year old) rocks. This reinforces conceptual linkages between contemporary viral outbreaks and deep time evolution and natural selection. It helps us contextualize our brief place in earth history relative to the other forms of life with which we co-exist.

The reduction of human activity in major urban centers has reduced seismic noise, enabling some seismologists to better analyze seismic activity in the same high frequency range as the noise. When central Christchurch was closed due to the effects of the 2011 Christchurch earthquake, we took advantage of this to undertake seismic reflection surveys in areas previously inaccessible and plagued by urban noise.

Analysing reductions in urban air pollution associated with COVID-19 reductions in human activity may also provide us with examples of what might be possible if emissions can be lowered. Earth scientists may be able to measure whether government traffic/activity reduction measures have reduced (or not) the traffic/activity as proxied through urban temperature and air quality data. These results interface in complex ways with human health, technology, and economies.

There are many wicked and pertinent questions that will only increase in importance as we attempt to seek solutions and opportunity in face of adversity. Perhaps some of the above-mentioned earth science perspectives will help us, and the broader community, to overcome this challenge.

Mark Quigley is an earth science teaching and research academic at The University of Melbourne, a Fellow of the Geological Society of America, recipient of a New Zealand Prime Minister’s Science Prize and Geological Society of America’s Public Service Award, and author of more than 100 peer-reviewed scientific papers and reports.