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Story Publication logo April 16, 2020

Pandemic Robs Field Scientists of ‘Once-In-A-Lifetime’ Moments

Volunteers from Indonesia's Red Cross prepare to spray disinfectant at a school closed amid the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) in Jakarta. Image by REUTERS/Willy Kurniawan. Indonesia, 2020.

Veteran public health journalists from Science magazine explore what science knows—and is learning...

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Image by Sardo Michael / Shutterstock. 
Image by Sardo Michael / Shutterstock.

When Jane Goodall witnessed a chimpanzee troop split into two bands in 1974, she called the event a "once-in-a-lifetime" opportunity. Now, a group of chimp researchers fears missing its own once-in-a-lifetime moment because of the coronavirus pandemic. Two years ago, they, too, witnessed a chimp group fission at Kibale National Park in Uganda. The consequences surprised them: Males of one group recently attacked the other and beat up the females. "I would have never predicted that males that have grown up together would be at each other's throats," says John Mitani, a primatologist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. But he and his colleagues are likely to remain ignorant about how this power struggle plays out over the coming months or even the next year.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, most of the research team has left the country. Mitani says such precautions make sense for both humans and chimps, who are likely vulnerable to COVID-19, too, according to an 11 April preprint on bioRxiv. But he and his colleagues may miss the rare events that structure chimpanzee society.

From the tropics to the poles, field researchers are abandoning study sites because of travel restrictions and fears of catching or spreading the new coronavirus. Project leaders are making hard decisions about canceling field projects and are scrambling to help students stay productive. Fleets of research vessels have been grounded and crews quarantined. As a result, researchers are steeling themselves for potentially devastating gaps in long-term data sets on the world's flora, fauna, climate, and chemistry. Even automated surveys are in peril, as many expensive instruments need human tenders. "There's never been another time in history where we've seen an essentially global cessation of surveys and data collection about species and ecosystems," says Ben Halpern, an ecologist at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

This year's data gap is coming just as the pandemic itself offers observers a once-in-a-lifetime moment. With business and travel almost at a standstill, pollution and other human impacts have diminished across the globe, offering a rare chance to see how the world works with a fainter human footprint. "It's like sending a spacecraft to Saturn for a flyby survey of the planet, only to have all the instrumentation stop working right when the spacecraft flies by," Halpern says.

Last month, Peter Marra, a conservation biologist at Georgetown University, conducted an informal Twitter survey of field scientists. Only 8.5% of the 450 responders, mostly ecologists, were going ahead with their planned fieldwork. One-third had canceled their field seasons. Even the North American Breeding Bird Survey, a massive, 54-year-old citizen science project that keeps tabs on birds across the Northern Hemisphere, was put on hold. Researchers fear losing track of reproduction and population trends in animals they've followed for decades.

Russell Hopcroft, a biological oceanographer at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, remains optimistic. As he has done for decades, he was supposed to set sail this month to catch the annual plankton bloom in the Gulf of Alaska and collect data from automated instruments that tracked water conditions leading up to the bloom. Plankton, at the base of the marine food web, offer a bellwether for the productivity of this important fishing ground, which can vary dramatically year to year. "It sets the stage for how we expect the whole year to play out," Hopcroft says. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council depends on these and other data to set catch quotas for the season.

State and federal agencies have sidelined the research vessels that collect the data. Yet Hopcroft is scheming to get special permission for a much-reduced cruise before mid-May. His ship's crew is in quarantine after arriving from Washington, a COVID-19 hot spot, and Hopcroft and two volunteers will isolate themselves starting this week to be sure they are not infected. They want to be ready to hop on board should Alaska's 30-day clampdown loosen on 1 May. "We aren't ready to throw in the towel," he says.

Oceanographer Fiammetta Straneo of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography is less hopeful about her planned cruise in June for the Overturning in the Subpolar North Atlantic Program, which has deployed underwater instruments to continuously track temperature, salinity, and current velocity at various depths across the North Atlantic Ocean for 4 years. The goal of this joint U.S.-European effort, planned to run for 10 years, is to understand how ocean circulation is changing, which in turn will affect how climate change plays out. The instruments take data automatically, but if Straneo doesn't update them, they'll likely stop recording after this summer. "Having a 1-year gap will be a major loss," she says.

This year is also a missed opportunity for one of ecology's biggest data projects, the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON). Decades in the making, NEON aims to monitor environmental changes in a range of North American ecosystems, and 2019–20 was to be the first full year when it could gather standardized physical, chemical, environmental, and biological data from all its 81 U.S. sites. Some sites are new, but others have been operational for almost 10 years.

But on 23 March, NEON ceased all inperson and onsite work, such as trapping mammals and insects and sampling soil and water. Automated instruments collect much of NEON's data. But Paula Mabee, NEON's scientific director, says she was surprised by how many automated instruments need human tenders for calibration or to manage hazardous chemicals. Of the 73 data products on autopilot, "we proactively shut down" 24, including measurements of carbon dioxide and rainfall, she says.

The missing data will have short- and long-term implications, says Michael Dietze, an ecologist at Boston University. For example, data on tick and mammal populations are key to his team's annual predictions about when and how many nymphs of the deer tick that transmits Lyme disease will emerge.

One of the biggest blows is the grounding of NEON's airplanes. They are outfitted with cameras and remote sensing equipment to keep tabs on such variables such as the heights of trees and the chlorophyll and nitrogen content of plants, which are important for calculating carbon uptake. Philip Townsend, an ecologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, has been working to turn those measurements into easy-to-use maps. He'd planned to groundtruth his efforts by collecting leaves this season. But this spring, there will be both airborne measurements and leaf collection are on hold.

Yet as disappointed as he and others are, delaying or shutting down such operations "is clearly the right decision," Townsend says. "You want people to be safe."

With reporting by Ann Gibbons and Paul Voosen.

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