Both short-term weather forecasting and long-term climate studies are under threat from COVID-19 as the imperatives to shelter in place and practice physical distancing make it nearly impossible for researchers to collect vitally important field data.
“The break in the scientific record is probably unprecedented,” University of California, Santa Barbara ecologist Frank Davis told Nature. Davis is executive director of the Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) program, which oversees a network of ongoing ecological studies whose geographical locations run from Alaska’s far north to Antarctica.
Also left high and dry by the pandemic are the scientists who “often ride along on the commercial container ships that criss-cross the world’s oceans, collecting data and deploying a variety of instruments that measure weather, as well as currents and other properties of the ocean,” Nature reports. While most of these vessels are still moving, “travel restrictions mean that scientists are no longer allowed on board.”
Noting that “measurements made at sea are important for forecasting weather over the oceans, as well as for keeping longer-term records of ocean health and climate change,” Emma Heslop, a program specialist in ocean observations at the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission in Paris, told Nature her organization has lost 15% of its reporting stations since early February. While the commission is trying to cobble together other means to collect critical data, she said, “the longer the restrictions are in place, the longer it will take for our operations to recover.”
The massive decrease in commercial airline flights has also curtailed important weather monitoring, as scientists often use such air traffic to gather data on temperature, pressure, and wind speeds. According to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), “the meteorological data provided by the U.S. aircraft fleet had decreased to half its normal levels as of March 31.”
On the bright(er) side: “Much of the world’s atmospheric monitoring data are collected with little to no human intervention, and such projects should be able to keep running,” unless pandemic-driven social disruptions get markedly worse.