Geohealth News

During a Pandemic, Is Oceangoing Research Safe?

With research cruises postponed, scientists are trying to get home safe, and others worry about the fate of their instruments left at sea.

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Oceanographer Rainer Lohmann from the University of Rhode Island was on a research cruise near Barbados when the coronavirus spread rapidly into a pandemic.

“When we left, everything was normal,” Lohmann said, speaking by phone while his ship, the R/V Endeavor, waited to dock in the city of Praia in Cape Verde on 17 March. “Now what we’re hearing and seeing is that we’re coming back to a country where we have to fight for toilet paper, where there are no hand sanitizers left, and you can’t go out to restaurants.”

The Endeavor left the Caribbean island of Barbados in late February and set off toward Cape Verde near West Africa, collecting sediment cores as it went. Lohmann and his team were investigating whether ocean sediments thousands of meters below the surface contained traces of atmospheric black carbon. After traversing much of the Atlantic Ocean, they had all the samples they needed and planned to fly home via Europe in mid-March.

But they faced a problem: The United States had just imposed strict travel restrictions through Europe. They needed a new way home.

Past Plans Scrapped…

Scientists around the world are scrambling to adjust to a rapidly changing environment. Researchers are shuttering their labs, switching to remote observing on telescopes, and learning to present their work virtually. A confirmed case of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) among the aircraft team of the Arctic expedition Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate (MOSAiC) quarantined about 20 of its members. Universities around the world have closed, some for months.

Research teams and oceangoing scientists who work in the field, often in remote locations, are facing new questions about how to conduct science safely. The organization that coordinates oceanographic research vessels across 59 academic institutions, University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System (UNOLS), paused operations on its vessels for 30 days on 13 March. This week, the group extended the pause until July.

R/V Endeavor, one of the UNOLS fleet, is one of the few vessels that were midvoyage when the situation worsened. Endeavor barely made it to Cape Verde before its ports closed to ships, Lohmann said. Their flights through Europe blocked, he and five other scientists who live in the United States decided to stay on board the ship as it travels back to its homeport in Rhode Island. Two scientists on the cruise from Spain departed at Cape Verde to catch one of the few remaining flights back home.

“It’s just one domino falling after the other, and you realize that you’re just in the middle of this geopolitical crisis,” Lohmann said.

…And Future Plans Dashed

UNOLS chair Craig Lee said that the group postponed cruises partly because it’s not known how expeditions can mitigate the risks of transmission of COVID-19 while at sea. “In the U.S. it is clear that the peak of the outbreak and any beginnings of a reduction or flattening of ‘the curve’ are still weeks away, and are based on successful social distancing efforts,” UNOLS wrote in a statement.

But on a ship, social isolation and physical distancing are “difficult to impossible,” said Lee. Crew, technicians, and scientists may come from many locations for the same cruise, making it challenging to limit geographic risk. Putting a group in small quarters runs a higher risk of transmission, especially since testing participants for COVID-19 before the cruise isn’t possible, according to Lee. While each cruise has at least one person trained in emergency medicine and significant medical supplies, ships have “far short of an ICU [intensive care unit],” said Lee, and it could take days to get to port.

Oceanographer Jonathan Fram at Oregon State University had a local cruise scheduled in late March to replace equipment in a long-term array installed off the coast. “We have a parking lot full of wonderful moorings, clean and ready to go,” he said. Usually, the team services the array every 6 months to monitor, among other things, ocean acidification and low-oxygen conditions that can be harmful to marine life.

Their cruise is now canceled, and Fram is concerned about their equipment left at sea. The moorings will “go dark” after a while, he said, and the autonomous, torpedo-shaped underwater vehicles (gliders) that traverse the array will run out of batteries in May.

Pushing back the cruise means that the team will miss recording data during the coastal ocean’s transition from winter to spring, when ocean upwelling brings nutrient-rich waters along the Pacific Coast. “It’s important to get a measure of that transition. And we’re not going to be able to do that as well this year,” Fram said.

Local cruises like Fram’s may get some respite, according to UNOLS leadership.

“Our hope, at least, is that we can find a way forward for some of the more local endeavors,” Lee said. “And again, it depends on how things evolve.” UNOLS is working with federal agencies to roll out guidelines in the coming days to help operators assess risks. Cancelations can be particularly hard on students and early-career scientists who have a “short, but critical, phase of their research careers,” said Lee.

As for the R/V Endeavor on its international cruise, Lohmann said that the crew took precautions to limit any transmission risk while in port in Cape Verde. Food was handed over the raised platform connecting the ship to the dock, people did not leave the ship if they intended to get back on, and no new passengers joined for the voyage home. During their 2-week journey back, those on board are taking their temperatures daily and using disposable cutlery and dishware. Lohmann hopes that their transit time will count toward any required quarantine when they get back to Rhode Island.

Until then, Lohmann said, the people on board are playing cards, watching movies, and joking around. “We realized that we will face social distancing once home and will long for group activities.”

Lohmann said the expedition was laid over for 3 days in Barbados at the start of the cruise, meaning they missed the window to catch flights back to the United States. “We couldn’t foresee that those 3 days were going to make the difference for most of us,” Lohmann said.

—Jenessa Duncombe (@jrdscience), Staff Writer

Citation: Duncombe, J. (2020), During a pandemic, is oceangoing research safe?, Eos, 101, https://doi.org/10.1029/2020EO142246. Published on 01 April 2020.
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