Joy Buongiorno, CC BY-ND

World - From Permafrost Microbes to Survivor Songbirds – Research Projects Are Also Victims of COVID-19 Pandemic

What do you do when COVID-19 safety protocols and travel restrictions mean you can’t do your research? That’s what these three scientists have had to figure out this year, as the global pandemic has kept them from their fieldwork.

A microbiologist describes the frustration of missing a sampling season in the Arctic at a time when climate change means the permafrost is an endangered resource. A biologist writes about missing for the first time the annual census of a bird population she’s been studying for 35 years and the hole that leaves in her data. And natural events aren’t the only ones researchers are forced to skip. An environmental scientist explains how postponing a global gathering about climate change could have long-term effects for people like her who study the process – as well as for the planet.

Focus of this fieldwork is melting away

Karen Lloyd, microbiologist: In March 2020, COVID-19 travel restrictions caused my colleagues and me to abruptly cancel our fieldwork plans to sample permafrost in Svalbard, Norway. We have a narrow time window each year in which to do our work, since fully frozen ground, full snow cover and sunlight only cooccur reliably for a month or so in the spring.

Our project involves examining deep layers of permafrost. We want to know whether they’re likely to be sources or sinks for greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane as the permafrost thaws. We’ll use molecular biological techniques to examine how carbon moves through these precious ecosystems. This kind of knowledge will help us understand positive feedbacks between climate change and warming Arctic permafrost.

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