Large icebergs float away as the sun rises near Kulusuk, Greenland, in August 2019. (Felipe Dana/AP)

As the novel coronavirus pandemic continues to upend life around the world, scientific research is beginning to suffer. Over the past several weeks, major Earth science field campaigns, some years in the making, have been called off or postponed indefinitely.

Earlier this month, several NASA-led airborne campaigns, including flights to survey land losses in the Mississippi River delta and hurricane recovery in Puerto Rico, were suspended. So too were scientific cruises that use vessels in the U.S. Academic Research Fleet. And with all passenger flights in and out of Greenland grounded late last week in an effort to prevent covid-19 from spreading to the icy island, many Arctic scientists’ summer field plans are now in limbo.

Some campaigns, including a complex international drilling project that’s collecting deep ice cores from East Greenland, have already been canceled for the year.

In many cases, scientists are planning to reschedule their work, although results will be delayed and money already spent toward this year’s field season will be lost. For the less fortunate projects — those that are time sensitive, or took years of careful logistical coordination across many institutions — scientists will have to lower their expectations in terms of what can be accomplished.

NASA missions disrupted

With most NASA employees are under a mandatory telework order, many missions and projects are experiencing setbacks. That includes three NASA-sponsored Earth science missions such as Delta-X, an airborne and field-based survey to assess where land is being lost and gained in the Mississippi River delta flood plain, and Dynamics and Chemistry of the Summer Stratosphere (DCOTSS), an airborne investigation of strong summertime thunderstorms that transport water and particles into the stratosphere.

Also in limbo is an air and sea campaign, known as S-MODE, which aims to investigate poorly understood ocean “eddies” that play a key role in transporting heat between the surface and the deep ocean.

All three campaigns have postponed their spring field work and anticipate delays in data delivery. Delta-X is pushing its spring 2020 campaign, aimed at studying the hydrology of the Mississippi river delta when river discharge is at its annual peak, back to 2021. The S-MODE team had originally planned to conduct a two-week “pilot experiment”— deploying three aircraft, an oceanographic vessel and a series of robotic ocean vehicles — off the coast of San Francisco in early April to refine methods in the lead up to a larger 2021 expedition.

On March 5, coordinators decided to postpone pilot testing until the fall, citing growing concerns that some of this complex research effort would be derailed by the virus.

With an initial round of April test flights using NASA’s highflying ER-2 aircraft now delayed, the DCOTSS team is tentatively planning to push the first science flights — originally slated to start in June — back to later this summer. But if the coronavirus impacts last for months, the team may be forced to put everything on hold for the year.

“Because we are studying intense thunderstorms, we do need to fly during the warm season … and one goal of the project is to sample these storms across the season,” principal investigator Ken Bowman of Texas A&M University wrote in an email.

Aerial surveys to assess forest recovery in wake of the 2017 hurricane season also had to be cut short this month. At the beginning of March, NASA flew an Lidar, Hyperspectral, and Thermal (G-LiHT) airborne imaging system over mangrove forests in the Florida Everglades to evaluate their condition three years after Hurricane Irma. The plane was then sent on to Puerto Rico to examine forest structure, recovery and die off after Hurricane Maria, but on March 16 flights were grounded after just a quarter of the data was collected, said Lola Fatoyinbo, an Earth scientist at NASA Goddard who works with this data.

“It’s really frustrating because we’ve been planning this for almost a year,” Fatoyinbo said. “It takes a lot of plans, efforts, flight authorizations, field authorizations and permitting.”

Greenland is off limits, for now


Melt water lake on Greenland ice sheet as viewed from a UAV. (Thomas R. Chudley via University of Cambridge)

It’s not just scientific flights that are being disrupted. Many governments have placed restrictions on passenger air travel, including the government of Greenland, which suspended all flights to and from the icy island from March 20 until April 8. This, combined with the National Science Foundation’s decision to cancel its April cargo and passenger flights to Greenland, which many U.S. researchers rely on, is throwing spring and summer field plans into disarray.

That includes work led by Lincoln Pitcher, a glaciologist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who is part of a group investigating how much meltwater escapes the Greenland ice sheet in the summer. Pitcher was planning to lead a team of four to a field site in northwest Greenland toward the end of April, with the goal of getting an automatic stream and atmospheric monitoring station up and running before the summer melt season kicked off and installing new equipment nearby.

That plan has been scrapped.

“The program managers haven’t canceled the full season on us, so there’s a chance we could get back in the middle or end of summer,” Pitcher said. But, he added, “we had put a lot of time, energy and effort into getting up for this spring period for a successful year two of our project.”

Others are already calling everything off for the year. The East Greenland Ice-Core Project or EastGRIP, an international, multiyear effort to drill a more than 8,000 foot-long ice core all the way from the ice sheet’s surface to bedrock to peer into Greenland’s past climate, was hoping to complete its drilling this year. On March 6, the University of Copenhagen-led team made the difficult decision to cancel its entire four-month field season, a suspension that’s costing up to a $1 million, according to principal investigator Dorthe Dahl-Jensen.

“It is certainly a setback,” Dahl-Jensen said in an email. “For graduate students and PostDocs on time limited contracts it is a disaster as they will not be able to do their research in time.”

Team member Bruce Vaughn, a glaciologist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, said that while he was “extremely disappointed” by the delay, everyone involved agreed it was the right call.

“Trying to evaluate if it’s a good idea to take over 30 scientists from a dozen countries … to live in Greenland in close quarters with limited medical supplies and difficult evacuation, it just didn’t seem like a good idea,” he said.

Research at sea is similarly paralyzed

On March 13, the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System (UNOLS), an advisory body that helps govern 18 scientific research vessels maintained and operated by various U.S. universities and national labs, called for the entire fleet to stand down for the next 30 days, effectively suspending dozens of research cruises. That includes projects funded by the National Science Foundation and the Office of Naval Research. According to UNOLS Council Chair Craig Lee, a senior principal oceanographer at the University of Washington, the council is currently evaluating whether to extend that directive for some or all of the next 140 days.

“I would say there is an expectation that there’s going to be further disruption,” Lee said.

One of the biggest victims of that disruption is an international, NASA-led effort to understand how carbon moves from the surface to the deep ocean where it can be sequestered for hundreds to thousands of years. The campaign — known as EXPORTS — includes 18 individual research projects and over 50 principal investigators, is collecting field data that is vital to helping ensure the success of NASA’s PACE satellite, an first-of-its-kind mission to study the ocean carbon cycle from space that’s currently slated to launch in 2022.

Following an initial deployment of two research vessels in the North Pacific in 2018, this year’s spring EXPORTS campaign in the North Atlantic was supposed to be the big event, with research vessels from the United States, United Kingdom and Spain set to ship off in mid-April.

Earlier this month, NASA decided to postpone the field season until next spring. David Siegel, the science lead for EXPORTS, is hopeful that most of the research will still happen, but admits that nobody really knows if all of the people, vessels and equipment involved will be able to reschedule.

The disruption, he said, is going to hit students and early career researchers particularly hard. The project has 54 principal investigators, Siegel said.

“Every one of them’s got a student or postdoc who’s in a vulnerable situation. For some, this is going to be the data set they build their dissertation around. Some need to get the high impact work that would have come out of this to get a faculty job. It’s totally disappointing.”

While many researchers are struggling to come up with contingency plans now that field work is off the table for the year, others are trapped abroad. Andrea Simonelli, an assistant professor of human security at Virginia Commonwealth University, was recently conducting field work in Samoa, Vanuatu and the Marshall Islands on how governance impacts human security, and in turn, climate adaptation and resilience. Now, after a coronavirus-related dispute between United Airlines and local authorities in the Marshall Islands effectively shut down international travel, she’s stuck there for the foreseeable future.

Other suspended cruises include a planned deep sea expedition led by Roxanne Beinart, an assistant professor of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island. Beinart has spent the last three years working to secure a ship and a pair of underwater robots to study the biology of deep sea animals living at hydrothermal events near the Tongan islands in the southwestern Pacific, in what would have been her lab’s first big cruise. The team shipped all of their supplies to Fiji earlier this month, only to learn that the expedition was being canceled “pretty much right after,” Beinart said.

“The impact of this cancellation on our work feels a little greater than it might otherwise, since this is a critical time in our careers,” Beinart said.