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An endangered southern resident orca leaps out of the water in Puget Sound. Photo courtesy of NOAA.

Research in the time of the coronavirus

As the state’s stay-at-home order drags on, much of the work to recover Puget Sound has shifted online. Funding schedules for the state and federal Strategic Initiatives remain on track and events like the Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference are going virtual next week with presentations by video conference.

But researchers face an entirely different situation as labs are shuttered and field work is cancelled almost across the board.

Megan Dethier, Director of the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Laboratories calls the situation at her lab fairly typical. Friday Harbor, known for its hands-on research among the tide pools of San Juan Island, is in “maintenance mode” as scientists work out which projects are critical and which ones can go on hold for the near future.

“Right now, we’re mostly trying to keep things from dying or crumbling,” Dethier said. On any given day, she told PSI over the phone, one scientist ventures into the office to exercise the valves on her electron microscope. Others come in to feed the captive fishes, but few are doing active research. The field study classes that have made Friday Harbor famous as a place for experiential learning have been cancelled as university courses go online.

“You just can’t do that virtually,” Dethier explains. “A quarter abroad in Rome is not the same as watching a bunch of videos about Rome.”

Dethier hopes that more field research will proceed later in the spring or summer if restrictions lift, but for now, as for most scientists, it is a good time to write papers and crunch old data.

Jenna Judge, monitoring lead for the Puget Sound Partnership says members of the Puget Sound Ecosystem Monitoring Program have been meeting to discuss ways to continue studying Puget Sound environmental conditions while staying safe and complying with the state’s social distancing mandates.

With exceptions for research deemed critical to safety or conservation needs, Judge says, most scientists at state and federal agencies and universities are not allowed to go into the field to do their studies. “We’re assuming that most field research is shut down right now,” she says. That means huge amounts of monitoring data for the spring — from herring counts to water sampling — are expected to be lost. At the same time, scientists are hoping to study what the global decrease in human activity might reveal about human pressures on the ecosystem.

The report that impacts from the virus have, temporarily at least, reduced the global carbon footprint is one dramatic example. Carbon emissions dropped by 18 percent in China between February and mid-March during the height of that country’s coronavirus lockdown and regions all over the world are reporting cleaner air.

“We are seeing reduced emissions for really horrible reasons,” said Amy Snover, Director of the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group in an interview with KIRO News. Her hope is that society can use this as a wakeup call “that actions that I take today will affect the impacts on you tomorrow.”

Fewer cars on the road and airplanes in the sky have also meant less noise in the environment. Seismologists have even observed a drop in vibrations on the Earth’s crust. 

One remaining question is whether the coronavirus shutdown has influenced noise in the oceans. Vessel disturbance has been a big problem for Puget Sound’s endangered southern resident orcas because it has interfered with the whales’ ability to use echolocation to hunt for scarce salmon. Could ocean noise be declining as well?

One source on this is the Orcasound hydrophone network run by orca scientist Scott Veirs. While Veirs, too, is staying at home, “We have acoustic data that continues to come in as long as those hydrophones don’t break,” he says.

Veirs suggests that now is a great time to listen to the hydrophone network that streams live sounds 24 hours a day from beneath the waters of Puget Sound. The network listens for the sounds of marine mammals such as Puget Sound’s orcas and other whales, but also captures shipping noise.

While the number of large vessels crossing Puget Sound has not decreased much during the COVID-19 crisis — the current numbers actually exceed those from just five years ago, according to the Marine Exchange — anecdotal reports from around Puget Sound suggest the number of smaller vessels may have declined. “That’s what my ears tell me, anyway,” says Veirs, “although we haven’t analyzed the data.”

If indeed small vessel activity and related noise levels have decreased, Veirs wonders how this might affect the southern residents. The orcas are not currently known to be in Puget Sound, but if they arrive, Veirs hopes scientists will be ready to analyze their behavior in this brave new environment.

“If the southern residents come back, the whales are potentially going to be in a very different situation. My gut tells me it is almost surely a good thing for the southern residents to not have all those boats out there,” Veirs says. But will there be observers out on the water to record what happens? Scientists can only hope.