How Scientists Are Keeping Irreplaceable Research Going During the COVID-19 Pandemic

The outbreak, and the travel bans and fears that come with it, have endangered long-running research projects

Elizabeth Thomas helicopter
Elizabeth Thomas's team moving between remote field camps via helicopter in Greenland in July 2018 Kristen Pope

Every year for the last half-century, scientists have gone to sea to collect ocean data as part of the Northern Gulf of Alaska Long Term Ecological Research Project. Now, because of the novel coronavirus, the five-decade-long project faces potential data gaps.

Russell Hopcroft, project leader and oceanography professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, says the status of three research cruises planned for 2020 is unclear even as the first is scheduled to depart in five weeks. The research team already decided to replace non-Alaskan team members with Alaskan scientists to reduce the amount of travel involved and drive, rather than fly, to the vessel’s launch point in Seward.

If they can continue, all team members will actively monitor their health for 14 days before boarding, self-quarantining and taking their temperatures regularly. But if the vessel doesn’t sail, the project will see gaps in the physical and biological data scientists have been carefully collecting for decades. “You hate to miss a data point because you never know what any given year is going to look like and whether it’s going to be an important year where something odd has happened,” Hopcroft says.

Hopcroft is one of many researchers scrambling to find ways to continue their research in a rapidly changing world where travel is difficult if not impossible and many university campuses are closing. The National Science Foundation and other agencies are working with scientists to adapt research plans and funding schedules, but many questions remain unanswered.

The village of Qaanaaq, Greenland, sits on the edge of a fjord that is ice-covered in winter. Mary Albert

The Ends of the Earth

NSF has halted deployments to Antarctica, for example. A mid-March flight to bring construction crews to work on projects including the Antarctic Infrastructure Modernization for Science (AIMS) initiative has been delayed for at least a month.

On the other side of the world, Polar Bears International scrambles to continue its remote Arctic fieldwork. Geoff York, the organization’s senior director of conservation, spoke to Smithsonian from self-isolation at his Bozeman, Montana, home after returning from Europe. Much of the team’s upcoming fieldwork to places like Canada’s Western Hudson Bay and Norway has been canceled or put on hold. He says the complex and expensive logistics involved means rescheduling may not be possible.

York says researchers spend years preparing for such projects, including spending the last year on logistics such as caching fuel and food in remote locations. “Some of these are kind of opportunities that are windows in time,” York says. “If they’re missed, trying to come back to do them again can be quite difficult.” York says the nature of the work leaves researchers with few options for alternative arrangements.

“In most of these, there is no Plan B,” he says. Such an endeavor requires “specialized training to do the work of getting out, and most of the cases involve live capture of polar bears out on the sea ice, so definitely not anyone can step in and do that.”

Antarctic Infrastructure Modernization for Science (AIMS) - McMurdo

Some scientists bridge the gaps with technology. When the COVID-19 crisis began, Mary Albert, professor of engineering at Dartmouth College, had just begun a four-year project to collaborate with the 600-person community of Qaanaaq, Greenland, to create sustainable energy solutions. The NSF-funded project is slated to begin in April when Albert and her team were set to visit Qaanaaq to learn about the community’s goals and vision.

Because of the remote area’s limited medical resources, however, Albert and her Greenlandic colleagues were concerned about the chance of inadvertently introducing the coronavirus to the community and agreed to postpone the trip to late August or September. In the meantime, the team focuses on emails, phone calls, and teleconferencing to exchange information and gather preliminary data. The researchers had hoped in April to install meteorological stations with sensors and instrumentation to chart soil temperature, wind speed and solar radiation, but that component will have to wait.

“We’ll lose the summer data from that and so it will put us back that way… but it’s definitely not a show-stopper,” Albert says.

​Åsa Rennermalm, associate professor of geography at Rutgers University, is also assessing her data-collecting options. She planned fieldwork for June and August in Greenland, where she is working on a decade-long data project monitoring meltwater from the Greenland Ice Sheet as it flows through the tundra. If she can’t travel, she will have to hope the instruments she left in place remain and continue to function. The sensors are programmed to collect data every 30 minutes and have a capacity of 40,000 data points, so they should continue to collect throughout the summer. However, when she visits her stations, she performs important calculations to ensure accurate data and troubleshoots any technical issues, which is now impossible.

“To do high-quality observations, you should go and do the discharge measurements once a year at least,” Rennermalm says. “Even if the instrument is running, if we can’t go it will reduce the quality of the data.”

Elizabeth Thomas
Elizabeth Thomas in Greenland Kristen Pope

Careers in Limbo

One of Rennermalm’s biggest concerns is the impact canceled fieldwork would have on her graduate students. She hopes to bring two graduate students to Greenland to collect data for their PhDs this year.

Elizabeth Thomas, assistant professor of geology at the University of Buffalo, shares those worries. Losing a summer’s worth of fieldwork could be detrimental to a graduate student’s ability to complete their projects and graduate on time—before their funding runs out. Fieldwork is also one of the most sought-after graduate school experiences.

“I’ve had graduate students ask me, ‘So are we going into the field?’” Thomas says. “Because it’s a highlight of their graduate careers to get to do stuff like that, and it’s totally up in the air right now, which is really sad.”

Research in Thomas’s lab also could grind to a halt if her school orders its labs to close, a possibility many colleges and universities must consider. For now, her lab has enacted strict cleaning, hygiene and social distancing protocols, and its members hope to work as long as possible.

Thomas, too, has fieldwork planned in the far north this year. She was to visit Alaska in July and Baffin Island, Canada, in August. While her team didn’t buy plane tickets yet, they already scheduled helicopter time. Overall, she worries about bringing students into the field when so much remains uncertain. “We understand and accept the regular risks related to fieldwork, but this is a whole new thing that we’ve never even considered,” Thomas says. “The nice thing is the science can still happen. It will eventually happen whether we go up this summer or next summer.”

Dartmouth Engineering Sustainability in Greenland

Science in Danger

Despite the challenges, scientists aren’t worried about only their work—they are concerned about the pandemic’s toll on the world. While Hopcroft is in Alaska preparing for three cruises that may or may not happen, gathering equipment and supplies, he emphasizes that whether or not he can collect data this year, safety is everyone’s priority.

“There is the balance to be found between our desire to maintain our scientific work and the health [and] safety of those involved,” Hopcroft says. “At this point, I just keep making contingency plans, but the ultimate decision just before the cruise will be made based on everyone's safety and the perception of risk.”

Says York: "In the short term, [COVID-19] could have significant impacts on research globally that range from delay to cancelation, from disappointing postponement to significant expense, lost data, and disruption of long-term data sets. Of these, lost data and disruption of long-term data are the most concerning, especially in a time of rapid environmental change and for projects where timing is critical to policy actions. International collaboration will be significantly curtailed as well, across disciplines, as travel restrictions fall into place and borders close."

Editor’s note, March 20, 2020: This story has been updated to clarify that the Polar Bears International organization does not currently work in Greenland.

Get the latest Science stories in your inbox.