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Natural History Museum infographics demonstrate the impact of COVID-19 lockdown

The Natural History Museum has collaborated with data visualisation company Beyond Words Studio to illustrate some of the changes in the movement of people, air and noise pollution and wildlife sightings in the UK.

The graphics, drawing on a variety of open source data and scientific databases, document the dramatic drop in driving and public transport use, the resulting reduction in air pollution and noise levels and the changes to sightings of both animals and birds.

The release of these graphics is part of ‘Nature in Lockdown’ a Natural History Museum public engagement initiative which is seeking to crowdsource research ideas and discover the top three environmental impacts of COVID-19 which people are most interested in.

The project, which has received funding from the Natural Environment Research Council, culminates in a live interactive virtual ‘Lates’ event on Friday 25th September at 7.30pm in which audiences can pose questions to young and emerging researchers about those topics.

The Natural History Museum’s Executive Director of Engagement Clare Matterson says: “These fascinating visualisations, the result of a collaboration between scientists, our digital teams and Beyond Words, bring to life some of the astonishing impacts lockdown has had on our environments and how we noticed and experienced nature in a new and different way. ”

Animal sightings

In the first 100 days of lockdown, there were nearly half a million wildlife sightings submitted to wildlife spotting website iRecord, an increase of 54% compared to the same period last year.

Bat sightings soared the most, with 2.4 times as many bats seen in lockdown as the same time last year.

The most popular lockdown animals were butterflies (129,000 sightings) and moths (90,000 sightings). 

Which animals did we see more of during lockdown

Bird sightings

Like animal sightings, those of birds were linked to an increase in time spent in gardens and parks versus nature reserves, many of which were shut.

Sightings of our favourite garden birds, the humble house sparrow, starling and collared dove increased whilst sightings of birds that thrive in wetlands such as avocets and marsh harriers plummeted.

How did bird sightings change during lockdown
Which birds were we spotting during lockdown

Cleaner air

Lockdown and the dramatic decline in journeys in London meant everyone could breathe easier. The graphic below depicts the average CO2 emissions measured from the capital’s BT Tower in 2020 versus a 2011-2019 baseline.

The sky-high observatory on top of the iconic BT tower in central London found that carbon dioxide emissions dropped by 60% during lockdown.

How lockdown cleaned up London's air

Noise reductions

Seismologists measuring the UK’s vibrations to monitor sound levels detected up to a 50% drop in the first three weeks of lockdown. The image below maps the higher number of sensor locations which became quieter versus those which became noisier. As animals of all kinds are acutely sensitive to noise pollution – affecting behaviour, stress and even growth, the decrease has been good news for the natural world.

For humans, it led to a rediscovery for many of the joys of hearing birdsong. People in cities across the world felt as though the birds were singing louder. In fact, with competing urban noise down by five decibels (60% quieter), the birds were probably actually singing quieter.

How the UK went quiet

Transport changes

Across the UK, public transport journeys dropped by a staggering 82% in the first month of lockdown. We were spending nine times as much time at home.

When we did venture out, we did so very differently. As cars and public transport were restricted, traffic went quiet. The roads emptied. Overall traffic hit its lowest point on 12 April, with an 81% drop in driving and public transport.

How much did lockdown slow us down

Duncan Swain, Partner and Creative Director, Beyond Words says: “Data visualisation is a powerful tool for getting to the heart of what’s happening. Collaborating with the Natural History Museum and their partners gave us a unique opportunity to show just how powerful an effect the pandemic has had on the world around us. The results, I think, have opened our eyes to otherwise unseen consequences."


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Notes for editors

[1] Source: The Quiet Project via The Guardian

[1] Source: Henrik Brumm, research group for the communication and social behavior of birds, Max Planck Institute for Ornithology via DW

[1] Source: Apple Mobility Data (accessed 28/7)

[1] Source: Google Mobility Data, accessed 15/06/20

[1] Source: Apple Mobility Data (accessed 28/7), compared to January 13th baseline

About the Natural History Museum:

The Natural History Museum is both a world-leading science research centre and the most-visited natural history museum in Europe. With a vision of a future in which both people and the planet thrive, it is uniquely positioned to be a powerful champion for balancing humanity’s needs with those of the natural world.

It is custodian of one of the world’s most important scientific collections comprising over 80 million specimens. The scale of this collection enables researchers from all over the world to document how species have and continue to respond to environmental changes - which is vital in helping predict what might happen in the future and informing future policies and plans to help the planet.

The Museum’s 300 scientists continue to represent one of the largest groups in the world studying and enabling research into every aspect of the natural world. Their science is contributing critical data to help the global fight to save the future of the planet from the major threats of climate change and biodiversity loss through to finding solutions such as the sustainable extraction of natural resources.

The Museum uses its enormous global reach and influence to meet its mission to create advocates for the planet - to inform, inspire and empower everyone to make a difference for nature. We welcome over five million visitors each year; our digital output reaches hundreds of thousands of people in over 200 countries each month and our touring exhibitions have been seen by around 30 million people in the last 10 years.

Natural Environment Research Council:

NERC is the UK's main agency for funding and managing research, training and knowledge exchange in the environmental sciences. Our work covers the full range of atmospheric, Earth, biological, terrestrial and aquatic science, from the deep oceans to the upper atmosphere and from the poles to the equator. We coordinate some of the world's most exciting research projects, tackling major environmental issues such as climate change, environmental influences on human health, the genetic make-up of life on Earth, and much more. NERC is part of UK Research & Innovation, a non-departmental public body funded by a grant-in-aid from the UK government.