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Coronavirus Outbreak Forces Earth Day 50th Anniversary Celebrations To Go Virtual

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) -- Earth Day normally is celebrated by gatherings of volunteers planting trees, cleaning up parks and picking up trash along the San Francisco Bay Area coast line. This year, the coronavirus outbreak has put all those plans on hold.

Gov. Gavin Newsom took to Twitter Wednesday to acknowledge this year's celebration has a different tone to it. Last year, the governor took to a garden and planted flowers and greens.

This year, Newsom was alone in his office -- sheltering in place.

"We love to say about California that the future happens here first," Newsom said. "That's demonstrable when it comes to the issue of low carbon, green growth, when it comes to the issue of radically changing the way we produce and consume energy, when it comes to the issue of environmental stewardship."

The San Francisco Park Alliance encouraged residents to go outside and enjoy nature, but to maintain their social distancing.

"We hope that our parks and public spaces can be places of comfort and solace amid this crisis," the group's CEO Drew Becher said in a release. "Hope to see you, at a distance, in our parks soon."

Officials with the California State Parks Foundation had a similar message.

"On most Earth Days we'd be outside, celebrating, protecting and enhancing the irreplaceable natural treasures around us, but this Earth Day, while we all shelter in place we're doing everything we can to support our state parks from home," said Rachel Norton, Executive Director of California State Parks Foundation. "Immediate grant funding for California's state parks will help to bridge the gaps brought on by this pandemic."

Across the globe, shelter in place orders have had an impact on the environment.

People are also noticing animals in places and at times they don't usually. Coyotes have meandered along downtown Chicago's Michigan Avenue and near San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. A puma roamed the streets of Santiago, Chile. Goats took over a town in Wales. In India, already daring wildlife has become bolder with hungry monkeys entering homes and opening refrigerators to look for food.

When people stay home, Earth becomes cleaner and wilder.

"On the roof at Duncan Hall we have an air quality station," said Professor Eugene Cordero with the Department of Meteorology and Climate Science at San Jose State University. "We've been looking at the data, and we normally see this rise due to traffic. We still see that, but it's much much lower than it is normally."

In the Santa Clara Valley, the mountains really do look a bit closer with the air is dramatically cleaner. SJSU has been tracking the fall of air pollution over the past five weeks.

"We measure black carbon aerosol," explained Cordero. "And we've seen anywhere from a 50 percent to 70 percent reduction during traffic times of those aerosols in the atmosphere."

No matter where you live in the Bay Area, you are enjoying the same cleaner air.

"So what we're seeing right now is about a 70 percent reduction in the amount of vehicles on the road," said Ralph Bohrman with the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. "And vehicles, being sort of the number one cause of air pollution in the Bay Area, the number one source."

Bohrman put that in climate terms.

"You know, 25 percent in terms of climate change pollutants," he said. "Huge drop of number of particles in the air."

This is a global phenomenon. The drop in air pollution can been seen from space, and it will provide a 1st-of-it's kind study of how the planet's climate works.

"During 9/11, when the planes stopped flying, we were actually able to measure the decrease in high-altitude clouds as a result of airplanes,"  Cordero said. "And we saw that, indeed, we could figure out the impact of those planes were having. Today, when we have basically a lockdown of most of the world, it is another amazing experiment."

An accidental experiment at a huge cost. Climate researchers hope when this crisis is over, lessons will be carried on.

"So we're hoping that, as things go forward and we go back to our normal lives eventually, that people sort of resolve to continue the progress that we are seeing today,"  said Bohrman.

Wilson Walker contributed to this story.

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