Great Orme goats roam the streets of Llandudno, fish and swans return to the clear canals of Venice, and deer in the Japanese city of Nara take to the streets in search of food. Scenes of these animals, in unusually urban settings, are doing the rounds on the internet worldwide, surprising many of us with how quickly nature moves back into our quietened cities. We’ve already seen the impacts that reduced travel and #stayingathome are having on local wildlife and greenhouse gas emissions, but what would happen if we were to disappear entirely?
I’m sure we’ve all wondered about it at some time: what if, even in the absence of natural disaster or catastrophe, people were here one moment and gone the next? In the short term, nothing much of consequence would change. Streets and roads would be cleared as cars crash and trains derail, immediately stalling the release of all emissions due to transport. Within a few days, light pollution would be eliminated as power plants begin to fail without the supply of fuel or human supervision, leading to mass blackouts across the world. On a clear night, our pet cats and dogs would be able to see the Milky Way galaxy from pretty much anywhere, while species whose migratory patterns or behavioural triggers had been hampered by artificial light would once again begin to thrive.
A few months into this new people-less age and some cities are underwater, as underground tunnels flood and water flows out into the streets. Inevitably, the safety systems in nuclear power plants fail, irradiating many ecosystems and killing much of the wildlife. Elsewhere, however, life begins to thrive in areas where it was once banished. Already, plants and animals begin to penetrate our buildings, as wildlife moves back into urban landscapes. The many exotic animals and plants in the UK, now left unchecked, alter our island’s biodiversity as surviving tropical birds thrive in parks, and Japanese knotweed becomes widely established. Globally, billions of livestock will be let loose, but with no one to rear them only the hardiest will survive to repopulate the countryside, plains and national parks (along with our now feral pets of course).
Within a few decades, cities are beginning to crumble as weeds and weathering break apart concrete and structures collapse. Cities at higher latitudes are encased in ice and snow, while desert cities, such as Las Vegas and Dubai, are rapidly buried beneath sand dunes. Eventually, the satellites sent into orbit decades earlier fall down to Earth again, with no one to control their flight or interpret their data. Interestingly, global warming will continue for at least half a century after we’re gone, but as farmland reverts back to forest and vegetation cover grows, excess CO2 is reabsorbed, and the climate begins to cool.
After a few hundred years, Earth as we know it is unrecognisable. Wilderness and urban landscapes blur together. Animals and plants thrive in areas where they never before occurred, with lions and elephants maybe even populating Europe. Marine life has recovered from overfishing and whales are abundant, despite the vast amounts of microplastic still present in our oceans. On land, the only thing representative of the human race are stone structures and billions of rubber tyres. While human existence has clearly shaped the ecological landscape and biodiversity of this new world, almost all traces of our existence, physically, culturally, and climatically have been erased. While this might be a scary thought in some ways, it is comforting to know that nature will always recover if we make the effort to let it. So, it’s worth remembering that when we turn the lights off on leaving a room, it’s not the planet that we’re saving, but ourselves.