People throughout much of the United States have been heavily encouraged to shelter in place since mid-March to prevent the spread of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. The global pandemic has shuttered labs, interrupted field work, and forced scientists to delay field campaigns that were planned for years.
But the processes that shape Earth and its ecosystems, like the rising and falling of tides, the shifting of underground rock, and algae blooming in the ocean, have not come to a halt. And these processes—some of which can lead to more loss of life—require routine monitoring.
Routine monitoring involves collecting real-time data with a suite of instruments and in situ observations. Some sensors can be left for months or years at a time, but they also might fail or need maintenance. And during a time when all of us are told to stay at home, when scientists are forced to delay field work and research campaigns, what does that mean for the monitors?
“Earthquakes do not stop during epidemics,” said Lucia Margheriti, senior researcher at the Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia in Rome. Starting 8 March, the Italian government issued strict stay-at-home orders, and Margheriti and her team began working remotely. However, a team must be on site in the lab at all times, so the group has implemented extreme cleaning and social distancing protocols when in the same building.
Shelter-in-place orders haven’t affected day-to-day monitoring operations for seismologists working for the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network (PNSN). After all, earthquakes can happen any time of day or night, said Harold Tobin, PNSN’s director, Washington’s official state seismologist, and a faculty member at the University of Washington. So seismologists have protocols in place for when an earthquake occurs outside normal working hours. Even without shelter-in-place orders, there’s always an “on-duty” seismologist ready to be woken up at 2:00 a.m. to respond to an emergency.
“One thing that came up very early was just the fact that you can’t shut down monitoring because it’s a public safety system,” Tobin said.
However, the pandemic has interrupted the rollout of ShakeAlert, a system that will provide up to tens of seconds of warning before an earthquake in Oregon and Washington (California’s ShakeAlert network went online at the end of 2019). The system requires at least 100 more seismic stations to be complete, Tobin said. That involves groups of people working together, conducting site visits, and installing equipment within close quarters.
Amid the new era of social distancing, the ShakeAlert scientists won’t be able to install new stations. The U.S. Geological Survey had planned to publicly roll out ShakeAlert this fall, but with the delay in new seismic stations and the fact that Washington’s state emergency team had to turn their focus to the spreading pandemic, ShakeAlert will have to wait.
In Pacific Northwest waterways, buoys in need of maintenance have been left unattended, and buoys ready for deployment can’t go out yet, said University of Washington oceanographer Jan Newton. She’s the executive director for a regional branch of the Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS), which uses various sensors to provide real-time data for things like acidification, temperature, wind speeds, and tides to private and public entities.
Newton describes IOOS as a set of “scientific oceanographic observations, but with the intention of societal benefit”—the oceanographic version of the National Weather Service.
A single buoy in Washington state’s Puget Sound, for instance, could be simultaneously providing acidification data for shellfish growers, temperature data for scientific models, meteorological data for navigation purposes, and phytoplankton data to track the development of harmful algal blooms.
“People do depend on these data for things like safe navigation for things like making their livelihood,” Newton said.
With shelter-in-place orders, IOOS employees can’t do routine maintenance on their gear, some of it aging and without a replacement. For instance, an ocean acidification buoy was supposed to deploy this month, but its instruments won’t be recalibrated in time because the sensor industries are also affected by shelter-in-place protocols.
Small industries, like mom-and-pop companies that take customers out fishing, “are going to be the ones that need to be fully functional,” Newton said.
For Amanda Henderson and her colleagues at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, situated about 320 kilometers southwest of Denver, some monitoring work involves hiking or cross-country skiing into remote locations to measure vegetation or snowmelt. And doing field work during a pandemic brings up a tricky conundrum.
“Being alone is safest, but given the realities of our environment, being with another person is ultimately more safe,” said Henderson, who studies snowmelt around Gunnison County in the spring to understand how it affects the local waterways and, ultimately, the Colorado River. Some of her colleagues have to cross-country ski nearly 20 kilometers to get to their study site. In that case, they decided to drive to the trailhead separately and maintain the recommended 2 meters apart while working.
Henderson’s own snowmelt monitoring work can be done solo, she said, so she’s comfortable continuing to do her own routine monitoring.
Matt Kelsch, a hydrometeorologist and weather enthusiast in Boulder, Colo., is part of the National Weather Service’s Cooperative Observer Program, a weather observing network that’s been in place since 1891. Across the United States, thousands of volunteers take daily weather measurements of temperature and precipitation. And because many of these stations were set up on private property, Kelsch said the weather network probably isn’t much affected by shelter-in-place orders.
These weather stations are used to create long-term climatology records for different regions across the United States. And these records can be used by a number of groups, including scientists studying climate change and insurance companies needing to confirm that damage to a car was from hail, Kelsch said.
Weather forecasts could still be affected, however. These days, many commercial flights carry weather sensors, and the airline industry has seen a significant drop in traffic since the novel coronavirus came to the United States. For example, the United States saw a 73.3% decrease in air traffic in April 2020 compared to April 2019. On 7 May, the World Meteorological Organization reported a 75%–80% decrease in meteorological observations from flights. (In the Southern Hemisphere, the decrease is close to 90%.) Before the pandemic, commercial flights provided more than 800,000 meteorological observations per day.
“Even though a decrease in this critical data will likely negatively impact forecast model skill, it does not necessarily translate into a reduction in forecast accuracy since National Weather Service meteorologists use an entire suite of observations and guidance to produce an actual forecast,” said National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration spokesperson Susan Buchanan in a statement released 24 March.
—JoAnna Wendel (@JoAnnaScience), Science Writer