Data Lost, Ships Stalled, Lobsters Released: What Woods Hole Scientists Have Left Behind
Last month, Aran Mooney, an associate scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), could be found peering into massive tubs in the wet lab where he works.
“We’re giving lobsters a hearing test,” he said over the lab’s hum in late February.
Mooney studies how all kinds of animals—turtles, whales, shrimp—hear and make sounds. But in recent weeks, all of that research has stopped.
“That was being conducted by a PhD student from France and he had to return to France,” Mooney said in a late March phone call, “so we actually released those lobsters as well.”
More than 16 lobsters—and the data that could have been collected—are gone.
Before COVID-19 forced shutdowns on non-essential businesses, 2,000 scientists, researchers, and staff filled labs and offices in Woods Hole’s 6 major science institutions. Now, just a tiny fraction are heading into work for essential maintenance only.
Ken Buesseler, another WHOI scientist, recently had a much more expensive loss.
For years, he’s been preparing for a field project to study the relationship between the world’s oceans, carbon, and climate change.
“That was supposed to bring three ships from three countries to the North Atlantic in April and May. This thing has been more than five years in the planning. It’s tens of millions of dollars,” he said. “And that field work will not happen now.”
The work will be on hold for one year, but Buesseler says, to reschedule a project with that many moving parts seems unlikely.
Down the street, at the Marine Biological Laboratory, rescheduling isn’t an option at all for people like senior scientist Anne Giblin.
“If this goes on for the entire summer,” Giblin said, “we’ll lose a year’s worth of data.”
Giblin works on a long-term research project that involves Plum Island Sound and the surrounding watershed. They’ve been studying this ecosystem for 28 years.
“Part of the way we are able to understand how things like weather and climate affect natural processes is to have these long term data sets so we can tease out various factors,” she said.
They were supposed to be out collecting data already, and each day lost becomes more critical. But, Giblin says, there’s an even “bigger loss” she’s more concerned about.
“For graduate students, to lose an entire field season… it’s not one data point out of 30 years,” she said. “It might be their thesis and might delay their graduation.”
Giblin is usually focused on measuring environmental impacts in a disrupted climate, and she sees a relationship here with the pandemic.
“Those that work on pandemics and people that work on climate change keep sounding the alarm and it’s often just ignored," she said.
"I don’t know that anything good will come out of this, but if one thing does come out of it I hope it’s a willingness to take science a little bit more seriously. “
Until then, she’s holding out hope that they’ll get back into the field this season.