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Coronavirus Pandemic Halts Climate Data Collection


Important climate information is not being collected because of the pandemic. That is partly because research ships have not been able to sail safely. NPR's Rebecca Hersher reports.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Leticia Barbero is a climate scientist at the University of Miami and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and in March, she was assigned to be the chief scientist aboard NOAA's largest research ship, the Ronald H. Brown.

LETICIA BARBERO: And it was supposed to go - departing from South Africa, going down south and then doing a sort of northward line, ending in Cape Verde.

HERSHER: This scientific mission happens every 10 years to monitor changes in how much carbon and heat are being stored in the ocean. It's the data that feeds climate models. They were supposed to leave on March 21. That morning, NOAA canceled the mission and told them to sail home.

BARBERO: It's a mixture of feelings because we were, obviously, very concerned. On the other hand, we've been working for months to prepare for this cruise, so it's quite heartbreaking from a scientific point of view.

HERSHER: The Ronald H. Brown was one of many research ships around the world affected by the pandemic. Emma Heslop works for the United Nations Ocean Commission.

EMMA HESLOP: The research vessel operations really, more or less, ceased.

HERSHER: At the same time, the U.N. estimates 90% of the data that's usually collected by scientists aboard commercial ships has also been disrupted.

HESLOP: Nothing like this has happened.

HERSHER: It's unclear when scientists will be able to get back on the water. The more time passes without complete ocean data, the more global climate science will suffer. Climate models rely on continuous information. But in the Atlantic Ocean, the situation isn't as bad as it could be.

HESLOP: The Atlantic is less affected, at least in part because of the actions of the chief scientists and the crew of the Ronald H. Brown.

HERSHER: As soon as her ship was told to return to the U.S., chief scientist Leticia Barbero got to work.

BARBERO: So we redesigned our deployment strategy to deploy as many instruments as we could on the way back.

HERSHER: Instruments like buoys and drifters that sit on the surface of the ocean for years, making measurements. They looked at their route and found the empty spots so they could drop their instruments in those places. Barbero says the information they gather won't replace the data they would have gotten on their original route, but it's better than nothing and will help scientists understand what's happening in the ocean, while the virus rages on land.

Rebecca Hersher, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.
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