Coronavirus Already Hindering Climate Science, But the Worst Disruptions Are Likely Yet to Come

Early fallout includes canceled science missions and potential gaps in long-running climate records, while research budgets could take a hit in the long run.

A researcher assembles an automatic weather station. Credit: East Greenland Ice-core Project
A researcher assembles an automatic weather station. Credit: East Greenland Ice-core Project

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Along with temporarily reducing greenhouse gas emissions and forcing climate activists to rethink how to sustain a movement built on street protests, the global response to the coronavirus pandemic is also disrupting climate science.

Many research missions and conferences scheduled for the next few months have been canceled, while the work of scientists already in the field has been complicated by travel restrictions, quarantines and other efforts to protect field researchers and remote indigenous populations from the pandemic.

The field research season in Greenland and the Arctic, which normally starts ramping up this time of year, has been particularly hard hit. Last week, leaders of MOSAiC, the largest polar research expedition in history, were forced to cancel research flights scheduled for the coming month after Norway imposed travel restrictions that could have quarantined the flights’ crews and prevented them from using airfields in the Arctic islands of Svalbard. Border closures are also hindering scheduled rotations of scientists on and off the expedition’s centerpiece, a research icebreaker that has been frozen into the Arctic sea ice near the North Pole for six months and will be drifting with it for six more. 


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But while the MOSAiC vessel has been able to continue its research on the ice, the coronavirus has prompted the cancellation of other Arctic expeditions, including this year’s EastGRIP field season, an annual mission to measure glacier flows in East Greenland.

Greenland reported its first case of coronavirus March 16, and subsequently shut down all air travel, including domestic flights, for at least two weeks to protect its mostly indigenous population of 57,000 people from the pandemic. About 1,000 researchers visit Greenland each year, most of them arriving via regular air service from Denmark, which has reported more than 1,200 coronavirus infections, including four deaths. Nuuk, Greenland’s administrative capital, has been sealed off from the rest of the country due to concern about the spread of coronavirus and the devastating impacts previous outbreaks of respiratory diseases have had on the region’s indigenous peoples, Arctic Today reports.

Some scientists are hopeful that research planned for later in the summer will be able to proceed if the virus subsides. At the same time, they worry that if the economic disruption lasts for several months, it would probably have a long-term effect on science budgets.

Despite these concerns, Brooks Hanson, executive vice president of science at the American Geophysical Union, said public and personal health and safety are the highest priority for its 62,000 members.

To keep researchers working, the AGU has set up a learning exchange webpage, where members and educators can share resources and knowledge about online education in the classroom, field and lab.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the European Geosciences Union canceled its annual Vienna assembly “due to the rapidly evolving COVID-19 situation.” Instead, the EGU will host a week-long series of online activities during the first week of May. For now, no final decision has been made on the COP 26 global climate talks scheduled for November in Glasgow, Scotland.

Some Researchers Continue, Others ‘Wait and See’

For climate researchers, losing a season’s worth of field data means that some long-running observations of temperature, precipitation and ice sheet changes from the Arctic to Antarctica could be interrupted. Some important instruments won’t be replaced or repaired in time to gather snow and ice data during the upcoming melt season.

Continuous records of the ongoing research are important at a time when climate impacts are accelerating, especially in the Arctic. Such studies provide real-time details of how warming at the poles is disrupting global life support systems, with impacts that will be felt long after the coronavirus pandemic fades.

At this point, the final impacts of the disruption can’t be fully assessed, and some federal research is proceeding, at least for the time being.

At this time NOAA’s research continues and our scientists are adapting,” NOAA Spokeswoman Keli Pirtle said, noting that the agency is minimizing social contact and incorporating procedures to isolate staff when needed. “Field researchers on NOAA vessels are still doing their data collection. Fortunately, technology allows many of the observations we use in our research to continue automatically.”

For instance, she said, although researchers are no longer visiting Mauna Loa, the Hawaiian station where key carbon dioxide measurements are made, they continue to remotely monitor automated data collection there.

How much the pandemic disrupts climate research depends on how long it lasts, said Mark Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder. The economic impacts could have long-term effects on science budgets, but it’s too early to know for sure, he said.

”We have no idea right now how long before this thing passes,” he said. “The great unknown lies ahead of us. As far as August fieldwork, it’s all wait and see right now.”

Unavoidable Complications and Unacceptable Risks

If the pandemic and responses to it persist for several months, most upcoming field research will likely be canceled. Restrictions on non-essential air travel makes the logistics of climate research more difficult, and there are also concerns about researchers potentially spreading the virus to relatively unaffected areas, and about how to treat scientists sickened by the virus in remote locations.

Dorthe Dahl-Jensen, a climate and ice researcher at the University of Copenhagen, said the cancellation of the 2020 EastGRIP field campaign means the world loses a bit of time in the race to figure out how fast and high sea level will surge in the coming decades. The drilling mission is aimed at understanding how global warming affects swift streams of ice that cut through slower-moving ice sheets, carrying icebergs and meltwater to the sea. The ice streams are responsible for 50 percent of the loss of mass from the Greenland Ice Sheet, Dahl-Jensen said.

“The uncertainty of predicted sea level rise is the world’s most dangerous climate change uncertainty,” Dahl-Jensen wrote in an email. “By canceling now, we can afford an extra season later to finish the project.”

But, she said, the postponement will have consequences for the science and the researchers.

“This will delay results a year and be terrible for the [master’s] and Ph.D. students with limited time,” she said.

The course of the pandemic in many of the nations involved in the project makes it hard to maintain the global collaborations needed for complex research. International missions are vital to climate science but their travel and logistics are challenging, even without a worldwide health crisis. 

For the first half of the season, from April to June, it would be impossible for EastGRIP team members, who hail from more than 10 nations, to travel, Dahl-Jensen said.

“After that we still need to consider the safety risk of bringing the team to a very remote site, 1,000 kilometers from any airport and only accessible with ski-planes,” she explained. “How do we avoid bringing a corona-positive person to camp? And if somebody in camp becomes sick, will the ski-planes come and pick us up or are we in quarantine? All in all, a risk we cannot take.” 

Jason Box, an American climate researcher with the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, said he has an expedition to Greenland scheduled to start April 28, but currently has no idea if it will actually happen. Even if the travel ban was lifted in time for the expedition, it complicates his planning because supplies would have to be pre-shipped soon. He said the pandemic could also interfere with plans to install or replace instruments that gather critical climate data like local air temperature.

“If field activities are canceled for the year, we may risk losing one or two automatic weather stations that need to be raised each year because they are on areas of the ice sheet where annual snowfall is high,” he said.

On top of its impacts on long-term climate research, the pandemic is also disrupting data collection used for more immediate weather forecasting.The European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts recently reported that the drop in air traffic has cut the number of aircraft observations, which could hamper rain and storm prediction.