Covid-19 And Disruptions In Scientific Field Work

Continuing a multi-city effort to quantify greenhouse gas emissions

Arguably the most well-publicized disruption to higher education resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic was the widespread conversion to remote learning at colleges and universities in March. Indeed, I taught both of my courses from home for seven weeks after spring break. But in addition, much of the activity at a university such as Penn State involves research by faculty and staff, and those efforts have been disrupted as well – particularly work that requires being in the field.

In this video, which first aired on May 6, 2020 as part of Penn State's long-running weather magazine show Weather World, (seen weekdays on WPSU-TV and the Pennsylvania Cable Network), we present examples of how the COVID-19 pandemic has postponed or delayed scientific field campaigns, some involving Penn State Meteorology and Atmospheric Science faculty members.

Some of the disrupted research requires gathering atmospheric data in the field, by ground survey or balloon launches. In some cases, projects have been cancelled because NASA aircraft or a fleet of ocean-going vessels overseen by a university consortium have been grounded. Several research projects on the Greenland ice sheet, often carried out during summer when the weather is less harsh, have been postponed because of travel restrictions to the island.

In contrast, I know of one field experiment in my department that’s much busier because of the pandemic. Penn State is deeply involved in research to develop methods of measuring emissions of greenhouse gases (such as carbon dioxide) from cities. The COVID-19 shutdown, and the resulting decline in vehicular traffic, is providing a test case for our ability to observe the metabolism of cities. A research team is currently involved in a multi-city effort to quantify the drop in greenhouse gas emissions. This group has been collecting measurements in Indianapolis for nearly a decade, and they report a marked change in the carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide concentrations around the city. They are comparing methods and results with scientists studying Los Angeles, Washington DC, San Francisco, Boston and Salt Lake City, hoping to use this event to test the limits of their current observational systems.

Other researchers may also benefit from both the data and methodology of this experiment. For example, the local buildup of gases from urban emissions also depends a lot on the weather conditions, including wind and atmospheric turbulence, so this experiment may be a test for the accuracy and precision of weather models. And this time of year, plants – which both consume and respire carbon dioxide – are greening, so the changing biosphere adds another level of complication to the story.

Article Topics: weather, research
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