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From north to south pole, climate scientists grapple with pandemic disruptions

As the coronavirus pandemic rages around the world, another ongoing and dire crisis — climate change — has not abated. Carbon dioxide levels remain high even after greenhouse gas emissions dipped earlier this year during widespread lockdowns.

And researchers from the Arctic to the Antarctic have struggled to maintain their research while facing pandemic restrictions, travel limitations and redirected funding. The result: gaps in critical data that tracks how the planet works.

That’s important because having consistent measurements is crucial to addressing the rapidly changing climate. After all, you can’t fix a problem you can’t measure. At this point, however, the gaps are not likely catastrophic. Instead, the biggest impact may not be on the data itself but on those collecting it, especially on early career scientists.

To meet this moment, researchers are working within the limitations and developing innovative solutions — and some say they have new perspectives on how human health is connected to the health of the planet.

Disrupted data

The largest polar expedition in history got stuck on pause when its ship had to unstick itself from the ice as the coronavirus grounded flights shuttling researchers on and off board.

The Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate, or MOSAiC, launched a massive research icebreaker named Polarstern to freeze in the Arctic sea ice in September 2019. They had not planned to break free of the ice till September 2020.

The Arctic is notoriously difficult to reach during the winter and spring months, so a home base frozen into the ice allows hundreds of researchers to explore the Arctic climate system: from how heat moves through the ocean, ice and atmosphere, to exchange of important gases like methane, and much more.

On board, teams of researchers from around the world rotate through to study the Arctic climate and ecosystem in detail. Torsten Kanzow, physical oceanographer at the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany, was the cruise leader of Leg 3 of the expedition, which left for the ice in early 2020.

The team wasn’t focused back then on the coronavirus that was beginning to make its way around the world. “We were dealing with other problems,” Kanzow said, like getting into a work routine, which is challenging given the extreme weather conditions. The coldest “record temperature we had was colder than minus 40 degrees [Celsius] on the ice,” he recalled.

Carin Ashjian, a biological oceanographer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute who studies the impact of climate on ecology, was also on the ship then and remembers that “there were a lot of mixed feelings” when news of the pandemic hit them in March. She described how they were both worried about the safety of people back home, while feeling relief that they were protected from the virus by their geographic isolation.

Carin Ashjian working on the ice, with RV Polarstern in the background. Photo by Serdar Sakinan

“Work was also a distraction. There was still science going on which was, of course, the reason why we were up there,” Ashjian said.

Before their scheduled departure in April, the Leg 3 team was supposed to construct an ice runway by clearing snow and take off in airplanes. But the ice was more dynamic than expected, cracking the runway, and the pandemic grounded all flights. So they waited.

In May, project organizers decided to take the Polarstern out of the ice to exchange personnel off the coast of Spitsbergen, a far northern Norwegian island. Beforehand, the new crew of Leg 4 participants were tested for the virus and quarantined.

But that decision meant accepting a gap in their data, as the Polarstern was supposed to drift with the ice, undisturbed for a year. Moving the ship disrupted the continuity of some experiments.

RV Polarstern meets up with RV Sonne off the coast of Norway to exchange crew and supplies between Leg 3 and 4. Photo by Alfred-Wegener-Institut / UFA Show & Factual

“In terms of the science, it was a particularly bad moment when we needed to leave,” Kanzow said. “The early part of the summer is important in many ways. The processes start that determine, actually, the fate of the sea ice during that season.”

It’s also a time when the ecosystem awakens — something of immense interest for Ashjian, who was working on a project investigating the carbon and nitrogen contribution of zooplankton, some of the tiniest ocean-dwelling critters that form the basis of the food web in the Arctic. Ashjian, like many of her colleagues, had to cut her work short.

“I wish we didn’t have the gap,” Ashjian said. “But I also wish we didn’t have a pandemic.”

Even though the ship had to leave the ice, it did return and scientists were able to continue their important research. On Oct. 12, the MOSAiC expedition was officially completed when Polarstern came home to the Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven, Germany.

Looking back at the whole endeavor, Kanzow said he had a lot to be thankful for: that researchers were safe, that they could keep the expedition going during this challenging year, and that they still managed to collect this unprecedented data set of the mysterious Arctic.

“In short: We are very happy,” Kanzow said.

Keeping the continent COVID-free

Other big climate projects are facing greater struggles, like the massive International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration (ITGC). Researchers on the ITGC’s various projects had to abandon their work in the harsh Antarctic climate, and wonder if they’ll even be able to find critical equipment once they’re finally able to return.

David Holland, mathematical climatologist at New York University, is a lead researcher of a multiyear ITGC project that aims to better understand the interactions between the ocean and the fast-melting Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica. The Thwaites Glacier is an important buttress to the whole West Antarctic Ice Sheet, and the glacier’s recent accelerating melting has worried many scientists that its disappearance could create a path for even faster melting of the whole ice sheet.

This year was supposed to be a crucial season on the ice, but access to the continent was restricted in June. “Really, blindingly quick. At many levels unbelievable. Still unbelievable,” Holland said.

“The science foundations don’t want the virus in Antarctica,” Holland said. Organizations like the U.S.’s National Science Foundation and the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council, control access to the southern continent and are worried about the limited medical facilities available to respond to the virus if it were introduced.

Denise Holland handles logistics for another of the lab’s big research initiatives that’s located in Greenland in the summer months.

“When COVID hit, first of all, I canceled June, just to keep everybody safe,” Denise Holland said. They intended to keep their plans for August, “But, as we followed the news and how things were progressing, it became very clear that it wasn’t going to work. So now we have canceled June and August and have those two gaps in our data retrieval.”

Denise Holland during a field season in Greenland. Photo courtesy Denise Holland/ NYU

Holland worries about the equipment left behind, and what it means for the important GPS, radar and ocean data at risk in Antarctica. “The idea was to come back in a year, which is this coming January, and to go and get the instruments. Nobody thought, ‘Hey, you might not get back next year.’ So, we only prepared instruments with identifying flagpoles at a height of 3 meters. The annual snowfall is 2 meters. So if we don’t get back this year, then next year everything is buried and you will not find it.”

As of early December, the Hollands, who are also married, are still on track with their plans. A pared-down team has departed for Antarctica to try to retrieve their valuable data and Denise Holland is hoping they will make it to Greenland in the summer as well. “It’s a very fluid situation and we will adapt as necessary,” she said.

Aided by automation

The NSF team overseeing Antarctic research realized it couldn’t sit back and “not do anything” for projects like the Hollands’, said Alexandra Isern, head of the Office of Polar Programs’ Antarctic Sciences Section.

Though travel has been drastically reduced, Isern and her colleagues are still sending smaller crews to maintain the most sensitive equipment, collect the most important time series and continue work at the most accessible sites.

Alexandra Isern, currently the head of the Antarctic Sciences Section for NSF’s Office of Polar Programs, during a field expedition. Photo courtesy Isern

“Normally in this season, we deploy somewhere around 3,000, 3,500 people, and it’s certainly down in the hundreds,” Isern said. “There are certain science instruments that also can’t go cold, and so we need to make sure that they have the minimal needed personnel to support that work.”

Though there have been and will be effects on research in Antarctica, Isern maintained that projects are being deferred and not entirely cancelled. Isern highlighted that shifts toward the automation of data collection in Antarctic research has made the situation more manageable.

“Over the past 10, 15 years, [we have] really encouraged and invested in instrumentation that can sit out in the field for a long time on its own. We’ve moved from the kind of ‘university on the ice’ to being more ‘robots on the ice’,” Isern said. “The way that our work’s been changing has put us in a better position than we would have been, had this happened 20 years ago.”

Careers on ice?

While the long-term fallout from this time might not be ruinous for these projects, losing opportunities for field research is “dramatic for Ph.D. students and postdocs that would have had certain opportunities,” Kanzow said. “They may have gone out this season and they may have found out something marvelous, which they would have put into a very great paper, and that would have paved the way for their career.”

As the scientific community grapples with the impact of lost time for new professionals, the research must go on, even during a pandemic. “One thing we’re trying to do at my institution is, when thinking about how to move science forward, getting maybe some of us out of our homes to be able to do some of the work in the lab, is to really prioritize the work of the younger scientists,” Ashjian said.

The NSF is also concerned about this cohort, and is figuring out other ways to help. Isern said the U.S. Office of Management and Budget has offered some flexibility in supplementing “existing [financial] awards to keep the students, early career researchers, postdocs supported” so that they can extend their research.

Speaking to early career scientists directly, Isern said, “If you have concerns or if there’s a way we can help, definitely let us know.”

Connecting climate, environment and health

The coronavirus pandemic also highlights the intersection between climate change and human health.

“The reality is you can’t change the climate of Earth and not affect every aspect of what it means to be a healthy human being,” said Aaron Bernstein, pediatrician and interim director of the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment (C-CHANGE) at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Aaron Bernstein with one of his pediatric patients. Photo by Michael Goderre/ Boston Children’s Hospital

In the context of the coronavirus, scientists are connecting the dots of how pollution that drives climate change also influences our health. “People that have been breathing air pollution for long periods of time are more vulnerable to the virus,” Bernstein said. “That’s not terribly shocking because there’s decades of research showing that air pollution increases the risk of people to both get and get sicker with respiratory infections.”

But Bernstein believes the links between the environment and human health provide an opportunity to address both challenges jointly, with solutions implemented that address the root cause: human influence on the environment and climate.

“[We have a] tendency to want to fix problems very near to where they hit us,” he said, adding that “we’re spending huge amounts of time and money to figure out how to make a vaccine and do better testing.” But a bigger goal would be to consider preventative measures, “to force ourselves to think about the things we can do that will go upstream and keep people healthier and address climate change.”

Bernstein co-authored a study in the journal Science that argues addressing potential root causes of animal-borne diseases such as the coronavirus would be vastly cheaper – about 2 percent of the costs of the current pandemic response – than dealing with the fallout. Plus, measures like reducing deforestation would not only keep wildlife more separated from human populations, but would keep more carbon locked up instead of releasing it into the atmosphere.

Even this type of research has not been immune to coronavirus challenges. Bernstein said the various foundations that are the main funders of C-CHANGE have shifted to providing direct relief to those disrupted during the pandemic. He is feeling the pinch just like some climate researchers who will now have data gaps. But, Bernstein said, we already know enough about climate change, and its downstream effects, to act now.

“We have a good enough picture of what we’re up against to know that we have to decarbonize,” Bernstein said. “If this were my patient that I had this level of data about where we were headed and I knew what to do to prevent the outcome we’re looking at, we would be doing everything we possibly could to prevent that outcome.”

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