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What polar researchers have learnt from the pandemic

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Two people on a boat in a lake, surrounded by icebergs.

A glacial lake in Iceland. The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted field trips to polar and subpolar regions.Credit: Danni M. Pearce

Conducting science in polar regions is no easy feat. Researchers often spend years planning fieldwork, acquiring funding and permits, and recruiting resources and staff members, including boats and experienced helicopter pilots. Even when a plan is in place, extreme weather frequently prevents them from accessing their field sites.

When COVID-19 took hold around the world, most polar researchers weren’t able to travel to their field sites at all, leading them to adapt their research questions and data-collection methods. Six polar scientists discuss how the pandemic has affected their research, and describe the lessons they hope to carry forward.

MICHELLE LARUE: Create opportunities for junior researchers

Ecologist and senior lecturer at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand.

I like to tell people that I spy on animals from space. I use high-resolution satellite imagery to learn about where animals in Antarctica are, how many there are, how they interact with other animals and how populations change over time.

The last time I went down to Antarctica was in late 2018. I worked with a team that I called the penguin paparazzi. We did aerial surveys over six colonies of emperor penguins (Aptenodytes forsteri) in the Ross Sea to confirm the data from satellite imagery.

I don’t have any active research projects where I have to go to Antarctica, so the pandemic hasn’t had a huge effect on my research. But from November 2019 to February 2020, I ran the Postgraduate Certificate in Antarctic Studies programme at the University of Canterbury, which has been affected. The programme involves taking about 20 students down to the ice for one or two weeks. We teach them how to do research in Antarctica and how to deal with the weather and logistics. We also encourage students to do their own research projects, where they gather data, bring them back and analyse them. But because of the pandemic, we haven’t been able to travel to Antarctica — and I’m not sure when we’ll next be able to.

I think the group of students who were able to go on the last trip, in December 2019, will be OK because they were able to gather data. It’s the students who haven’t had a chance to collect their own data and familiarize themselves with research in Antarctica that I worry about. I also feel for the students who won’t know that Antarctic research is something they might want to do, simply because they didn’t have access to it.

There’s an adage that once you go to Antarctica, you either get the bug or you don’t. I got it: I want to go back all the time. I want to understand Antarctica better, in part because it’s so unique — it’s the only continent on the planet that is set aside for peace and science. I want to make sure that it stays that way and is protected. And I want to make sure that younger scientists have an opportunity to experience that, too.

A woman in a blue jacket and white cap standing on grey, white and blue ice.

Danni Pearce on Midtdalsbreen glacier in Norway.Credit: Danni M. Pearce

DANNI PEARCE: Share resources

Geologist and associate professor at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences in Ås, Norway.

I started my position at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences in January. My husband and I moved from the United Kingdom to Norway last November, during COVID-19 and before the UK exit from the European Union was completed. It was an absolute nightmare. We had to move before the transition period ended, or we would have had to obtain sponsored visas. We also had to apply for a travel visa for my husband, who is South African, and that required us to have an apartment-rental contract. It wasn’t easy to find somewhere that allowed us to sign a contract without seeing the apartment and without being in the country. We also had two flight bookings cancelled because not enough people were flying. Now we’re more settled, but it’s odd to start a new job during a lockdown, when you can’t see anyone.

I’m a Quaternary geologist, which means I study the past 2.6 million years of geological time. I reconstruct the past of glaciers and ice sheets in the Arctic, with a focus on periods of abrupt climate change. I’ve done research in a variety of polar and non-polar regions, including Greenland, Iceland, Arctic Russia, Norway and Scotland.

I had no plans for fieldwork last year. But my PhD student had to cancel his plans to work in the field in Arctic Russia. Furthermore, our main Russian collaborator, Vasily Kolka, died from COVID-19. That was a big blow, especially to my PhD student, who was quite close to him; they spent a field season working together.

In the early days of COVID-19, funding agencies were scrambling to work out what to do in terms of fieldwork, grants and jobs for early-career researchers. Every country and government dealt with the pandemic differently. And few months ago, some UK funding agencies announced that their funding had been cut for future grants, and that they were looking to immediately downsize grants that were already awarded. To me, that is hugely unfair. There’s a lot of job insecurity in research at the best of times, let alone now. We could lose really good scientists as a result of these cuts.

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that when we work together, we can think outside the box and adapt. When COVID‑19 first hit, polar researchers had to work out how to do our science when we couldn’t go to our field environ-ments, and find a way to teach online. I had never used Zoom before. But I worked with a group of international palaeoscientists to compile resources and discuss teaching approaches. We created a database of resources, including guest lectures, which saved everyone time and reduced the stress of having to develop curricula. We never thought about creating a resource like this before COVID-19. There’s always hope that we can change quickly when we work together.

A man in an orange jacket on hands and knees on pebbles, with ice in the background.

Thulani Makhalanyane sampling microbes in Antarctica.Credit: Ian McDonald

THULANI MAKHALANYANE: Adapt research questions

Microbial ecologist and associate professor at the University of Pretoria in Pretoria, South Africa.

I study the ecology of microbial communities in extreme environments, including those in continental Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. For example, I try to understand how the communities might be affected by ocean acidification and other consequences of climate change. My group does this by collecting marine and terrestrial samples and then setting up experiments in the laboratory to simulate different conditions.

A lot of our fieldwork has been delayed or cancelled because of the pandemic, so we haven’t been able to acquire many samples. Earlier this year, two of my students travelled down to Marion Island, which is between South Africa and Antarctica, to collect samples. It was a logistical nightmare, and the cruise was scaled back to about half capacity. One person tested positive for COVID-19 before the ship left and another backed out at the last minute. My students were still able to go, but it was extremely busy, because there were fewer people to do the work than there should have been.

One by-product of the pandemic is that the breadth and ambition of research projects had to be downsized quite a lot. We all want to have big, multidisciplinary papers, but because our sampling is limited, we now have to ask different questions, perhaps focusing on one small niche. Many of the guidelines for grants and performance assessments haven’t been changed to account for the pandemic, so I have to be quite nimble in how I adapt my projects to provide the outputs I promised at the start of the grant, even though the situation has changed radically from what I originally envisioned.

In polar research, things can change at the last minute because of logistical constraints and challenges with accessing collection sites. Staying on top of the literature really helps me to pivot my research questions in a way that’s still ecologically meaningful, so that the data can lead to a PhD thesis or a paper. I don’t know what will happen in the next few years: there’s even less science funding available in South Africa now than before. I’m spending a lot of time writing grant applications and reaching out to other people to ask whether I can work with them.

A woman in black looks at the teeth of an unconscious polar bear lying on snow.

Thea Bechshøft examines a polar bear in Canada.Credit: A.E. Derocher, Univ. Alberta

THEA BECHSHØFT: Continue offering virtual opportunities

Ecotoxicologist and staff scientist at Polar Bears International in Aarhus, Denmark.

I’ve been doing research on polar bears (Ursus maritimus) for the past 17 years, mostly in the field of toxicology. I look at persistent pollutants such as mercury, flame retardants and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which were once used as coolant fluids. The whole Arctic food chain is built on fat or blubber, because animals need to build up a good fat layer to sustain themselves during the lean months. A lot of organic pollutants are transported with the wind and ocean currents, so they get incorporated into animals’ fatty tissue and are concentrated as they travel up through the food web. Because polar bears are apex predators, they ingest the largest amounts of these contaminants. Every polar bear is affected, sometimes carrying up to 400 pollutants.

Some of our work at Polar Bears International has been put on hold because of the pandemic, especially in Western Hudson Bay, Canada, where a monitoring programme has been running for at least the past 40 years. Even though we didn’t miss any data-collection periods, our collaborators couldn’t collect data from several polar-bear populations.

For me, the pandemic hasn’t changed a whole lot. My job contains aspects of both research and outreach, so a lot of my work was done online even before COVID-19. I’ve been doing a lot of media interviews and giving talks to kids learning from home.

But many people have had their lives turned upside down. I’ve been heartened to see that academia focused more on empathy and communication than it did before the pandemic. Conferences and workshops are becoming much more inclusive, too. Once meetings went virtual and started offering lower prices, subtitles and recorded talks, participation numbers and reach skyrocketed to include more researchers from developing nations, minority groups and various time zones. I very much hope that at least some conferences and workshops will continue to be virtual, or a hybrid of virtual and in-person.

HYOUNG SUL LA: Find new ways to collect data

Principal research scientist at Korea Polar Research Institute in Incheon, South Korea.

I mainly work on the Korea–Arctic Ocean Observing System, which aims to understand future Arctic environmental changes through studying the interactions between sea ice, the ocean and phytoplankton.

I have been on two missions on the research vessel Araon since the pandemic hit. The first was to collect data, but strict COVID-19 measures limited our voyage to 2 months, which was 35 days shorter than our mission in 2019. There were also only two research teams that could go, instead of the usual three. Despite these limitations, we accomplished about 90% of the mission.

The second mission was from October 2020 to March 2021, and was around 40 days shorter than pre-pandemic voyages. It involved various research projects. In one, we installed an underwater mooring system to observe krill and marine mammals, as well as tracking changes in carbon absorption.

The pandemic had only a minimal impact on my ocean-going research. I conducted my planned projects and was even able to spend extra time on the vessel, because another trip using the Araon was cancelled. But it was challenging to be away from my family for so long. When I returned home from the most recent Antarctic cruise, I noticed that my kids were taller and my mother was older. I’m looking forward to being home next year to celebrate my son’s 12th birthday and my wedding anniversary in person.

Although my research fared well, most of the field programmes through the Korea Polar Research Institute were seriously affected, owing to immigration regulations. COVID-19 can be particularly devastating in polar regions, because people are far from treatment facilities and the temperatures are freezing cold in most seasons. Flights to Arctic and Antarctic research areas have been cancelled. Even domestic access to Arctic field sites was not granted to researchers, to protect Indigenous peoples and local residents.

Because the pandemic has kept a lot of researchers from conducting field observations, many have devised new ways to collect data. For example, scientists are looking into automated and remotely operated observation and monitoring systems, such as drones, underwater gliders, remotely operated vehicles and autonomous underwater vehicles, which can conduct field observations with fewer researchers and in shorter time frames. Bilateral cooperation with local and Indigenous collaborators who can manage observation equipment in the field is another way to continue field-based research during a pandemic.

A woman uses research instruments in a hole dug in snow and ice.

Daniela Liggett on fieldwork in Antarctica.Credit: Regina Clery

DANIELA LIGGETT: Help those who are most affected

Social scientist and associate professor at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand.

From September to November 2020, I co-led the Antarctic COVID-19 Project supported by the international Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research. We conducted a survey of 406 Antarctic researchers to evaluate how the pandemic had affected them personally and professionally. We wanted to understand whether there are disproportionately disadvantaged groups in the Antarctic research community, and how we can assist them.

We found that early-career researchers have been adversely affected to a much greater extent than established researchers. Funding is uncertain, and early-career researchers don’t know whether they can continue with Antarctic research simply because there’s no postdoc work. At the same time, they don’t know whether they can finish their current PhD or postdoc projects, because they can’t get to the field. Timelines are fixed for many grants, and most deadlines weren’t extended even though researchers don’t have access to the data they need. Many early-career researchers are looking for jobs and careers outside academia. Some have even had to take on other jobs during the pandemic, because their grants were frozen and they needed income.

Another problem early-career researchers are facing is extra competition for postdoc jobs. There are too many applicants, including established researchers who suddenly lost their jobs or were furloughed. Early-career researchers don’t stand a chance against someone who has years of experience and quite a few papers.

I think the impacts of COVID-19 will play out in society for years and decades to come. There’s now a huge group of early-career researchers who don’t have a future in polar research, which might lead to bottlenecks and skill shortages in the community in the future. Arctic research is not a step in, step out, step in again kind of field. And it’s not a field that someone can easily pursue on the side while they’re doing other things. When the current group of active researchers retires, we’ll lose the capacity to recruit and to expand the community of junior polar researchers.

I think there are some bright spots on the horizon, however. Scientists are exploring how to share data more effectively across countries and continents and how to make samples available to others. Doing this will help to build the polar-research community, and give young scientists the opportunity to access data when they can’t go to the field themselves.


These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.


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