fb-pixel

Another casualty of the coronavirus: scientific research

Carin Ashjian, a WHOI biologist, has been studying zooplankton aboard a German icebreaker attached to an ice floe in the Arctic Ocean. Now, she's experiencing an additional two months on the ship, as another team of scientists go through a period of quarantining before she can be replaced.
Carin Ashjian, a WHOI biologist, has been studying zooplankton aboard a German icebreaker attached to an ice floe in the Arctic Ocean. Now, she's experiencing an additional two months on the ship, as another team of scientists go through a period of quarantining before she can be replaced.Serdar Sakinan

Ecologists have been unable to gather water samples vital to understanding the impact of climate change on state forests. Marine biologists who regularly collect data about conditions in the Gulf of Maine have been stuck on land, while others who do aerial surveys critical to monitoring endangered whales have been grounded.

With much of the world still shut down, the coronavirus has hampered the painstaking work of many scientists whose findings rely on regularly collected data and seasonal experiments.

The loss of that work — much of which can’t be replicated or done at another time — could have a long-lasting impact on scientists’ understanding of everything from the warming of our oceans to the demise of certain species.

Advertisement



“Long-term environmental data sets have never been impacted to the extent we’re experiencing now,” said Doug Levey, program director in the division of environmental biology at the National Science Foundation, which subsidizes nearly a quarter of all basic research at US universities.

From the tundra to the tropics, much of the work of the agency’s grantees has been halted, including long-term studies at remote outposts in Alaska and field sites in Puerto Rico, he said.

That has meant decades of research will now have gaping holes in their data — gaps that are especially significant now, given what could be learned from a time when people are having less of an effect on the environment because of the global shutdown.

“Because humans have such a direct impact on ecosystems, it is likely that many ecosystems will respond in ways we have never previously witnessed,” Levey said. “Without scientists in place to record the details, however, many of those unexpected phenomena will go unexplained.”

At Harvard Forest in Petersham, David Foster worries about losing data that have informed three decades of research about local woodlands.

Advertisement



Among the losses since March has been the collection of vital water samples that can’t be stored in university labs. “This thwarts studies of hemlock loss, climate change, and connections between forests and oceans,” said Foster, director of Harvard Forest, one of the nation’s oldest managed forests.

At the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the pride of its fleet of research vessels — the new, 240-foot Neil Armstrong — has been tied up at the pier since it returned from its last voyage in March. Its crew remains onboard, quarantined, waiting for clearance to head back to sea with a new team of scientists.

The Armstrong had been scheduled to take Canadian scientists to collect data about plankton, toxic algae, and temperature in the waters off the Maritimes in Atlantic Canada, part of a series of studies that has been underway since 1998.

That mission was canceled, as was another by the institution’s other large ship, the Atlantis, which was supposed to take part in a multinational effort to better understand how the smallest parts of the ecosystem circulate through different depths of the oceans.

“These are significant blows to the science and will have a large impact,” said Rob Munier, the institution’s vice president of marine facilities and operations.

It’s unclear when they will be allowed back on the water.

“The uncertainty has been the hardest part,” said Munier, noting that WHOI has trips planned in Greenland and Iceland this summer. "Scientists prepare for these trips for years, and graduate students rely on the data to complete their dissertations.”

Advertisement



A different challenge for some scientists has been getting stuck in remote locations when the pandemic hit.

Since February, Carin Ashjian, a biologist, has been studying zooplankton aboard a German icebreaker attached to an ice floe in the Arctic Ocean. She’s now experiencing an additional two months on the ship, as another team of scientists go through a period of quarantining before she can be replaced.

Unlike colleagues back home, Ashjian has been able to conduct her research without much interruption.

“As I sit in my lab, photographing copepods,” she wrote to colleagues at Woods Hole, “I reflect on how what I thought would be surreal (working on a ship frozen into the ice in the middle of the Arctic Ocean) is now normal, and the world that I left behind is the one that is surreal. I cannot imagine what it is like at home.”

One of her replacements, Stephen Archer, a senior research scientist at Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in Maine, has been quarantined at a hotel in Germany, awaiting confirmation that he’s not infected with the virus before he can be sent to the ship.

Both worry that the project could be more profoundly affected by COVID-19.

“Developing a plan for how to keep the experiment going in the face of the pandemic has been a huge effort,” Archer wrote from his hotel in Germany. “It would be extremely sad and a major loss to science (and society) if we were not able to achieve the full year of measurements as planned.”

Advertisement



At the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, scientists who monitor the health of the remaining 400 endangered North Atlantic right whales couldn’t fly over Cape Cod Bay when more than half of their population usually congregate there in early spring.

Other research they do on humpback whales also stopped.

“When we and others can’t fly, we lose a lot of knowledge,” said Charles “Stormy” Mayo, director of the center’s right whale ecology program. “We lose information on injuries, which is critical to their management.”

Across the bay in Plymouth, long-term studies of birds at the conservation group Manomet have suffered.

Trevor Lloyd-Evans, director of the group’s landbird conservation program, said the shutdown has hampered a 54-year banding operation at their observatory. Another blow to their research came when colleagues had to cancel what he described a “crucial season” of surveys of shorebirds that breed in the Arctic.

He described the past two months as a “lost spring” of research.

“What if keystone species are vanishing from large areas, and we do not have the basic data to recognize this?” he said. “Our predictions are only as good as the data we enter into our analyses.”


David Abel can be reached at david.abel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.