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What does COVID-19 mean for ocean science – and for the ocean itself?

This World Oceans Day is like no other - the COVID-19 pandemic and ‘stay at home’ measures have reduced human activity at sea and in coastal areas. We take a look at what that means for ocean science.

At-sea research has been hard hit

Border close-downs and social distancing measures have halted many long-planned ocean research expeditions. Today, research voyages often begin with scientists from different countries taking a plane trip to the country where the research vessel is docked, where they’ll meet their onboard colleagues for the next few weeks. With planes currently grounded, and almost all ports closed to foreign nationals, this has become impossible, and many research expeditions have simply been cancelled. ISC Governing Board member and head of the Physical Oceanography research unit at GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research, Martin Visbeck, estimates that at-sea research has decreased by 80%. Research expeditions can take several years to plan, and some planned voyages may not be rescheduled. This uncertainty can cause anxiety for early-career and other researchers who have had to forgo expeditions that are crucial to their ongoing work.

Some research voyages were unexpectedly extended

With people living and working in close proximity, often far from land and healthcare services, COVID infections on ships pose a unique threat, as the plight of passengers on the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship demonstrated. 

For some researchers who had started expeditions in the weeks and months before COVID was declared a pandemic, the virus has meant staying at sea for much longer than anticipated. Onboard the German research icebreaker Polarstern, a group of around 90 scientists found themselves at sea for some two months longer than expected. Polarstern is part of MOSAiC (Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate), the largest polar expedition in history. The pandemic made it impossible for flights to bring supplies and new crew to the vessel, as had been planned, and so Polarstern had to break out of polar ice in the Central Arctic, where it had been drifting for six months, for an at-sea meeting with two supply ships at Svalbard. Over the past few days, the Polarstern has replenished its supplies and many of the crew – including scientists from different countries – have been exchanged. The new team had to spend several weeks in quarantine in Germany and Norway before boarding the Polarstern, and have been regularly tested for COVID-19. Taking part in an expedition of this scale always means being parted from friends and family for a substantial time, but in the middle of a global pandemic, that period just got even longer.

Ocean observing systems continue – but a longer-term decline in data collection is possible.

Since the start of the pandemic, reductions in plane travel have resulted in a massive drop in the meteorological data collected on aircraft and used to observe and forecast our weather and monitor the climate. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) estimates that between 75% and 90% fewer measurements are being taken from aircraft than in non-pandemic times

Ocean observing systems have been less affected to date, because they’re highly dependent on automated systems. However, those systems need maintenance, and devices such as drifters and floats used to monitor ocean currents and conditions will need to be redeployed. That’s why the WMO predicts a gradual decline in data from such systems, unless supply and maintenance activities can resume. 

What’s happening to the ocean itself?

At the same time as reacting to the immediate effects of the pandemic for their work, ocean scientists are also gearing up to explore whether responding to COVID-19 has brought changes to the ocean itself. 

The International Quiet Ocean Experiment (IQOE) of the ISC’s Scientific Committee on Oceanic Research is looking into the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on levels of sound in the ocean. This activity will continue through 2020 as data from underway sound receivers (hydrophones) are retrieved and processed so as to compare the data from locations around the world, to see whether changes in the timing and distribution of human activities have changed ocean sound levels. A recent paper from Canada found that there had been a measurable reduction in the amount of low-frequency sound off the west coast of Vancouver Island. “We would expect the same thing everywhere, but mostly in coastal areas. No areas should have gotten noisier,” said Ed Urban, IQOE Project Manager, “Ocean animals sometimes vocalize less when it is noisy, so they might vocalize more if it is quieter.”

The ocean might have got quieter during the pandemic, but will it have become any healthier? An increase in single-use plastics – whether for personal protective equipment or takeaway meals – has raised concern that they could add to the enormous 13 million tonnes of plastic that currently reaches the ocean each year. In France, it’s been reported that disposable masks and gloves have been found in the Mediterranean Sea. Of course, when it comes to plastic use at any time, responsible use and disposal is what matters. Systems to collect and appropriately dispose of single use products such as surgical gloves are critical to ensuring that they don’t end up in the world’s ocean – now or in the future.  

While there’s been a big downturn in passenger and pleasure boats, trade vessels are still operating at sea, and so industrial-scale pollution at sea continues unabated. The short-term drop in CO2 emissions from human activity during the pandemic seems likely to be temporary, and thus not sufficient to make a difference to ocean acidification levels. 

Likewise, with restaurants and fish markets closed around the world and commercial supply chains disrupted, demand for fish has fallen greatly and many fishing boats are stuck in port. It might be hoped that this would provide some respite for declining marine ecosystems, but if there’s a ‘rebound’ effect, any gains made during the pandemic could quickly be reversed.

In the ocean as on land, many of the issues affecting the health of the ocean and marine ecosystems are systemic and need to be addressed over the long-term. While the COVID-19 pandemic has forced issues such as plastic pollution and environmental degradation into the mainstream, working towards Sustainable Development Goal 14 for a healthier ocean demands an integrated, long-term perspective. As a strong supporter of the UN Decade for Ocean Science, the ISC is making the case for scientific knowledge to reverse decline in ocean health and to create improved conditions for sustainable development of the ocean into the future. 

Photo: Maria S. Merian crew deploys a Zodiac to conduct fender exchange operation to the Sonne for the upcoming exchange with the Polarstern (Alfred-Wegener Institut / Lianna Nixon (CC-BY 4.0) 

This is part of a series of blog entries on the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (also simply known as the “Ocean Decade”). The series is produced by the ISC and the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, and will feature regular interviews, opinion pieces and other content in the run-up to the Ocean Decade launch in January 2021.

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