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Around this time last year, oceanographer Maureen Conte was on a research ship off the coast of Bermuda, hauling scientific instruments up out of the ocean.
But so far this year, Conte, like many other scientists, is stuck at home.
“Basically the entire U.S. research fleet is now docked,” says Conte, a fellow at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole and a senior scientist the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences.
A career spent going to sea has taught her to expect surprises, but she says, “we never anticipated the coronavirus.”
Spring and summer are “field season” for many scientists, when they get out of the lab and into the ocean or the forest, or wherever their science takes them. But this year the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted field research worldwide: whales and butterflies are being left uncounted, trees unmeasured, soil samples left in the ground, and scientists are scrambling to salvage their work. And with so much still up in the air, the long-term consequences on their research are still unknown.
Conte, for one, is concerned. She’s in charge of the longest-running ocean time-series experiment in the world, the Ocean Flux Program. In 1978, scientists first set huge sediment collectors in a patch of the Atlantic Ocean. The traps capture continuous samples of “marine snow” — plankton, fish poop, sand and other stuff – at different depths. The work has taught us a lot about climate change and the ocean — how it’s becoming more acidic, for instance, and how much carbon it might be able to store. Having continuous data for more than 40 years is scientific gold mine. But, this year, Conte can’t collect her samples. Read more and listen to audio segment …
This segment aired on May 15, 2020.
Photo: Marine Biological Laboratory Fellow Maureen Conte (center right) and crew of the R/V Atlantic Explorer recover a deep ocean sediment trap. (Courtesy J.C. Weber)