From Research In Hyperspeed To Canceled Expeditions, Academic Scientists Adjust To A New Pace Under Coronavirus

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4min 43sec
Zach Schwalbe
In Colorado’s academic world, a class of essential workers are allowed to continue their work on university campuses under COVID-19. This includes Zach Schwalbe, who makes in-person observations at the Colorado Climate Center’s weather station on the Colorado State University campus.

COVID-19 has launched an unprecedented scope of businesses requiring remote work. However, some jobs just can’t be done remotely. 

In Colorado’s academic world, there’s a class of workers deemed essential and required to continue work on college campuses. At Colorado State University in Fort Collins, there’s the expected, like a group of virologists work on the Foothills campus on a COVID-19 vaccine

But researchers at the Colorado Climate Center are also still hard at work maintaining a 130-year weather record in Fort Collins.

“Actually the first thing I notice is it’s dead here on campus,” said Zach Schwalbe, a Climate Center researcher who records in-person temperature and cloud cover measurements many mornings. 

“It’s kind of eerie, actually."

While the vast majority of Colorado Climate Center’s work is automated through temperature gauges, assistant state climatologist Becky Bolinger said there’s one place where machines still can’t replace humans. 

“Really you need that human element for an official observation,” Bolinger said.

There’s no sugarcoating it: Academic science in Colorado looks different under the news restrictions in place due to the new coronavirus. Labs are temporarily shut down. Grants are on hold. Many summer academic research expeditions have been downsized or canceled. 

Courtesy Zach Schwalbe
CSU’s weather station in Fort Collins is situated near the Lory Student Center.

University of Colorado Boulder ice core scientist Bruce Vaughn had to cancel his summer research trip to Greenland. He said it was a no brainer. 

“We decided that taking 30 scientists from 12 different countries all over the world to get to Greenland, and then sequestering them in a remote location living in close quarters with limited medical supplies and lack of ability to evacuate, may not be the best idea,” Vaughn said.

Greenland’s summers are short, just a few months. It takes weeks to set up tents and work stations on the ice sheet. While the ice cores provide invaluable climate change data, the work will have to wait until summer 2021.

Some cancelation decisions are more complex.

Mike Gooseff is a professor of hydrology at CU Boulder who coordinates the McMurdo Dry Valleys Long Term Ecological Research Project. He’s at the very beginning stages of planning his field season to the continent, which starts in October. 

Gooseff knows he’s working on a schedule right now that will never see the light of day. But it’s helping his team prioritize data must-haves for the field season. For example, one record related to the Onyx River stretches back 50 years. 

“There are other things that happen on a shorter-term basis that we want to try to capture so we understand why the response occurs the following year,” Gooseff said. “That’s the challenge here of one lost year — it could be challenging for many years in the future.”

There are so many unanswered questions that plague his current schedule — Will airports and travel be unrestricted in October? Will workers be healthy? 

While the coronavirus may seem unprecedented, Gooseff actually does have a precedent. In 2013, the government shutdown delayed his timetable by weeks.

“We went into planning mode. We said, ‘If the delay lasts this long, we’re going to do this plan. If the delay lasts this long, we’re going to do this plan.’ That was kind of how we had to approach it,” he said.

If there’s one silver lining to all the delayed and canceled plans, Vaughn at CU Boulder said it could be this: Researchers with months at home and no distractions may begin whittling away at their stack of half- and unwritten papers.

“I think we’ll probably see a splurge in publishing in the next few months,” Vaughn laughs.

Are you in academic research? CPR wants to hear about how the coronavirus has changed your work. Email us [email protected]