Around this time last year, oceanographer Maureen Conte was on a research ship off the coast of Bermuda, hauling scientific instruments up out of the ocean.
But so far this year, Conte, like many other scientists, is stuck at home.
“Basically the entire U.S. research fleet is now docked,” says Conte, a fellow at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole and a senior scientist the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences.
A career spent going to sea has taught her to expect surprises, but she says, “we never anticipated the coronavirus.”
Spring and summer are “field season” for many scientists, when they get out of the lab and into the ocean or the forest, or wherever their science takes them. But this year the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted field research worldwide: whales and butterflies are being left uncounted, trees unmeasured, soil samples left in the ground, and scientists are scrambling to salvage their work. And with so much still up in the air, the long-term consequences on their research are still unknown.
Conte, for one, is concerned. She’s in charge of the longest-running ocean time-series experiment in the world, the Oceanic Flux Program. In 1978, scientists first set huge sediment collectors in a patch of the Atlantic Ocean. The traps capture continuous samples of “marine snow” — plankton, fish poop, sand and other stuff – at different depths. The work has taught us a lot about climate change and the ocean — how it’s becoming more acidic, for instance, and how much carbon it might be able to store. Having continuous data for more than 40 years is scientific gold mine. But, this year, Conte can’t collect her samples.
“We’ll be able to look back and say, ‘Oh, great, we had this continuous record and now we have this big gap.’ And that creates a number of different scientific problems,” Conte says.
A small gap in a 43-year record may not seem like a big deal, but Conte says it makes the overall data more difficult to analyze. And she says she never knows which batch of samples might lead to a big discovery. Recently, for instance, the team discovered that hurricanes cause surprising, short-lived changes to the deep ocean.
“Quite often we have very infrequent events that make a huge difference,” she says. “And so you never know what you’re gonna miss.”
Scientists with shorter-running projects may have even more to lose, says Richard Primack, a professor of plant ecology at Boston University.
“Where people have short-term experiments, those are really where we see the greatest potential for damage,” says Primack, who co-authored an editorial on the pandemic’s impacts on field research in the journal Biological Conservation.
And it’s not just about lost data, he says. Careers are being stalled or upended.
“Master’s students in ecology often have only one field season,” he says. “And if they are intending for this to be their field season, they’re in trouble.”
Primack is continuing his field work in Concord, but without students, and mostly on gray, drizzly days when there are few people around.
His colleague, Boston University biologist Pamela Templer, doesn’t have that option. Templer has been studying climate change at New Hampshire’s Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest for almost a decade. But not this year.
“Normally at this time of year, we’d have a team of students up there, and they’d make measurements of plants, soils, the atmosphere, animals, organisms, everything we can get our hands on,” Templer says. “So not only can they not go to the field to collect samples, but they even if they could, we couldn’t bring them back and process them in the lab.”
Templer says being stuck at home is especially frustrating now, because she’d love to see how the forest is responding to this unprecedented slowdown in human activity. She hopes to get to the woods later in the summer, but for now she’s improvising. She asked a Hubbard Brook field technician to take some measurements, and most of her students are analyzing existing data and catching up on their writing.
“Right now we’re riding it out,” she says. “Now if this were to turn into another year, two years, longer — I think it would be catastrophic.”
Catastrophic because of students’ lives upended, grants lost, data ruined and experiments scrapped. But Templer remains optimistic that science will find a way, and says that some good may even come from the shutdown. Scientists go to an awful lot of meetings, Templer says; Maybe learning to love Zoom will help lower the scientific community’s carbon footprint.
And, she says, the pandemic has given her a new appreciation for her former life.
“I think we will never take for granted our ability to just jump outside and go collect a leaf sample,” she says.
This segment aired on May 15, 2020.