Coronavirus Threat Delays Arctic Climate Researchers
The coronavirus crisis has spread far and wide, indiscriminately affecting civilians, celebrities, sports stars and politicians and touching all parts of society. Now, the pandemic is impacting scientists on a large research expedition in the frozen Arctic Ocean, delaying critical climate research.
The researchers are part of the MOSAiC (Multidisciplinary Drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate) project, which is one of the largest-ever research missions to the polar region.
The scientists use the German research vessel Polarstern, which they intentionally froze into Arctic sea ice last October, as their home base. By trapping the ship – and themselves – in floating ice for over a year, the scientists created a "drifting polar-research laboratory" from which they hope to get a closer look at the Arctic's rapidly changing climate, reported Nature as the expedition began. The researchers and technicians sample the ice, atmosphere and ocean to better understand the intricate Arctic climate and how it affects global climate.
Throughout the 13-month study, 600 people from 19 countries will rotate onto the ship via other icebreakers and aircraft.
While the crew on the ship are currently infection-free, a team member slated to join the expedition this month tested positive for the virus right before departing for the field.
The infected individual attended a pre-expedition workshop in Bremerhaven, Germany on March 5 with other members from the aircraft team. MOSAiC chief scientist Markus Rex told Nature that 20 other team members who had contact with the person are being quarantined for 14 days in their homes by German health agencies. Until the quarantine is lifted, the airborne component of the expedition will be delayed and postponed for the safety of those onboard the ship.
"We don't want any exposure out there at the Polarstern," mission co-coordinator Matthew Shupe told The New York Times. As such, all team members scheduled to join MOSAiC are tested twice – two weeks before leaving their homes and once before leaving for the ship. This testing protocol uncovered the infection before it reached the field.
Lynne Talley, a physical oceanographer at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, explained the risk. Given the close quarters on the ship and the virus's long incubation time, keeping the virus from getting on the ship is critical. Talley told Nature, "Suppose someone inadvertently does end up on the ship with a virus. It would just pretty much take the entire ship."
Talley's warning comes on the heels of two major coronavirus outbreaks on cruise ships – the Diamond Princess, which was quarantined off Japan last month, and the Grand Princess, which was held offshore March 4 to 9 in northern California.
Shupe told Nature that the postponement should only minimally disrupt MOSAiC's scientific objectives. Assuming the quarantine is lifted and no others test positive, "the plan is to carry forward with the activities," he said to The New York Times. Shupe also confirmed that a separate airborne unit scheduled for April to bring fresh supplies and new researchers remains unchanged. "That part, so far, is on target."
Shupe did caution that further delays would "shrink the window for the airborne mission" and worried about future complications for the expedition as the pandemic continues to intensify around the world.
Setup of the MOSAiC ice camp in front of RV Polarstern during leg 1 of the expedition on Oct. 11, 2019. Stefan Hendricks / Alfred Wegener Institute
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.