During a normal May, Jill Anderson would be loading a U-Haul with supplies, saying goodbye to her family, and driving west from her home in Athens, Georgia, to an abandoned silver mining town high in the Colorado Rockies. That’s where Anderson, a genetic ecologist studying climate change, and dozens of other researchers gather each summer to study plants, animals, and the environment at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory.
Every year, she drives mustard seedlings up to the mountains and plants them at different altitudes and climate zones. Then she returns with several graduate students each summer to check how the mustard plants—and, by proxy, other forms of vegetation—are adapting to a rapidly changing climate.
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The lab’s been hosting researchers like Anderson since 1928, but this spring the normally busy facility is quiet, and Anderson, a professor of genetics at the University of Georgia, is at home. She has a key to a campus greenhouse, where she checks on the progress of her seedlings, but she’s not sure when her decade-long experiment in the mountains will continue. “We are going to lose a lot of data, and it’s a bummer,” says Anderson. Her campus is under a more strict closure than the rest of the state. “We now have restrictions on essential research on campus,” she continues. “Normally, we would start planting now to get the seedlings old enough for the fall. I’m worried that if they aren’t tended now and don’t grow, that would mean that the shutdown now is going to affect my research for two years.”
Anderson’s story is a familiar one as researchers who depend on the spring and summer to collect data outdoors find themselves stuck at home with a laptop and Zoom. So, too, are the thousands of graduate students who depend on the field season to research their doctoral or master’s degree theses, a project that is an important step toward eventually finding a job in the demanding academic world.
“There are a lot of research projects that depend on new observations or specific weather windows,” says Scott Borg, deputy assistant director for geosciences at the National Science Foundation, which funds 11,000 new science projects each year. “In particular, the young scientists, grad students, and postdocs, when they are faced with the decision that the season they need to look at some physical or biological process is gone, they are asking, ‘What do I do?’ It’s a quandary.”
The loss of a field season could mean a delay for established scientists, but it may also push some younger researchers to quit or switch to a more reliable career that doesn’t require year-to-year grants. Borg says the NSF is giving researchers flexibility about collecting data, extending projects, or using existing data sets to fill in the gaps.
In the meantime, most summer expeditions, oceanographic cruises, and field camps that are vital for both experienced scientists with tenured positions as well as younger researchers looking to break into science, are either canceled or postponed indefinitely. That has left some graduate students struggling to survive.
Emily Witt was set to begin a year-long research project as an observer on a swordfish boat trawling the East Coast. As a master’s student at Nova Southeastern University in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, Witt was studying whether new fishing gear might prevent longline fishermen—who set lines of baited hooks that stretch up to a mile long—from accidentally snagging endangered sea turtles. Now the swordfish fleet is tied up, her $20,000 Department of Commerce grant has disappeared, and she’s looking for a new science project. The specially designed electronic tags that were supposed to be deployed at sea are sitting in boxes under her bed in her apartment.
“Right now, I applied for unemployment. I’m applying for jobs and waiting to see what is going to happen,” Witt says. She adds that she may switch to study vertical fish migration, or the movement of species that travel from the deep ocean to the surface in search of food, using data that has already been collected. This work might help scientists understand the “carbon cycle” of how carbon gets from the water’s surface to the bottom of the sea.
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The pandemic has also stranded some researchers who were doing field work when Covid-19 hit, giving them something of an advantage over their locked-down colleagues. Carin Ashjian, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, was one of 97 scientists and crew members aboard a German oceanographic research vessel that has been deliberately stranded in Arctic Sea ice as part of the year-long MOSAIC experiment. The ship is drifting in the ice, while researchers like Ashjian set up camps on the frozen ocean surface to study the ecosystem below. She was scheduled to return to Germany last month, but because of logistical difficulties with replacing the crew on the ship, Ashjian is now spending an extra two months on the ice.
Since the ship left port before the new coronavirus hit Europe, it’s like sailing on a voyage from coronavirus-free times. “We have no restrictions working in the lab, because we don’t have any social distancing,” Ashjian said during an interview via satellite phone. “We are an island without the virus. It’s very comfortable. The food is great. We are having a good time.” Ashjian sets up a tent every day around a hole cut in the ice. She lowers a net several thousand feet to the sea bottom to pick up zooplankton in the water column. She’s collecting more data than ever before.
Meanwhile, other Arctic researchers who have not yet left home are having their projects put on hold. Scientists studying Greenland, which suffered record-breaking heat and ice melt last summer, won’t be able to make it for the first half of the summer field season. But a skeleton crew, which was already in place at one remote research station before the pandemic occurred, has still been able to collect some data for researchers like Kelly Brunt, a glaciologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
Brunt says the crew of science technicians at Summit Station brave the Arctic cold to drive 10.5 miles across the ice while dragging an extremely accurate GPS device behind their vehicle. The crew then posts the GPS measurements online so Brunt can download them from the comfort of her home, where she can study Greenland’s ice thickness on her laptop.
This remote data gathering and reliance on automated technology (supported by human technicians) was honed during the 16-day government shutdown in October 2013 that brought many science projects to a halt, but also forced researchers to get creative as a result. They replaced diesel generators with wind turbines and batteries with solar cells to make their sensors and monitoring devices last longer, for example.
“Data sets that we as a community are collecting (the stuff that would be interrupted by this type of thing) are generally being done via ruggedized equipment with solar/wind power helping out,” Brunt wrote in an email to WIRED. “They can often keep going without being visited. We learned a lot from the government shutdown; we do things better now.”
Update 5-6-2020: This story was updated to correct the name of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
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