COVID-19 disrupts Great Lakes research, outreach


The Robert B. Annis Water Resources Institute’s two research and educational vessels, the D.J. Angus and the W.G. Jackson, won’t see Lake Michigan this spring. Image: Robert B. Annis Water Resources Institute

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of stories about how COVID-19 derailed the research of many Great Lakes scientists.

By Amelia Cole

A wave of uncertainty looms over Great Lakes research.

The novel coronavirus has led to the cancellation of outreach programs and academic conferences and has left researchers unsure of what their summer field seasons will look like.

Every spring and summer since 1986, The Robert B. Annis Water Resources Institute at Grand Valley State University has offered educational cruises for 4th through 12th graders in western Michigan. More than 185,000 people have collected data on Lake Michigan because of that program, said Alan Steinman, director of the institute.

Those cruises won’t happen this spring.

In the wake of the coronavirus, the institute has had to temporarily close. No decision has been made yet on summer research or educational cruises, Steinman said.

It’s impossible to know the long-term impacts of the cancellation, he said. “Have we lost a whole cohort of potential Great Lakes stewards?”

And it’s not just kids Steinman is worried about.

The program employs deckhands, captains and crews who rely on wages from operating the research vessels.

“When you ask about how research will be impacted, you don’t really think about these kinds of very, very significant issues in these peoples’ lives” he said.

The institute will work to offset the impacts to workers and students, Steinman said. But he can’t help but worry.

“If I’m not an old man already this will turn me into one, that’s for sure,” he said.

COVID 19’s effects are especially apparent within the world of academia.

On March 19th, the Society for Freshwater Science and the Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography called off their joint conference planned for June.

The International Association for Great Lakes Research (IAGLR) also cancelled the physical version of their Conference on Great Lakes Research that was set for Winnipeg in June. The event has been held annually since 1953, and it has never been cancelled before, said Christine Manninen, the conference director.

“That opportunity to get together is a big deal for a lot of these researchers,” Manninen said.

The conference usually boasts about 700 attendees from around the world.

“Virtually anyone working on the Great Lakes is a member of IAGLR,” said Steinman. “Anytime you have all the folks together there’s meetings—people are discussing collaboration, they’re discussing projects, things like that.”

The cancellation of conferences and the postponement of field research will be felt far into the future, especially for graduate students, Steinman said.

Giving academic presentations at conferences is a big deal for graduate students and delaying field research leaves questions about whether students will find funding to extend their projects, he said.

“They’ve lost a whole year now,” he said. “That whole wave gets moved downstream.”

Despite the challenges posed by the coronavirus, universities and government agencies are doing their best to prevent severe disruptions to Great Lakes research.

Central Michigan University’s Institute for Great Lakes Research is finding ways to safely collect critical data for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Great Lakes Coastal Wetlands Monitoring Program.

“A gap in this unmatched temporal dataset would be most unfortunate,” said Don Uzarski, director of the CMU Institute for Great Lakes Research. “Countless agencies and individuals rely on these data to make informed environmental decisions,”

Field researchers can still sample wetlands in remote areas while remaining six feet apart, according to Uzarski. Scientists are required to pack their own lunches, avoid contact with others and purchase fuel via pay-at-the-pump. Data is sometimes collected with “skeleton crews” of just two researchers.

We are finding ways to continue fieldwork without compromising the safety of our scientists or the public by contributing to the spread of COVID-19,” Uzarski said.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory is also doing its best to continue operations while staying safe, said Steven Ruberg, lead of observing systems and advanced technology at the laboratory.

Ruberg supervises the use and distribution of buoys that collect data on the Great Lakes in real time. The spring is an important time to get the buoys in.

Thankfully, the buoys are big enough that two people can put them in the water while staying six feet apart, Ruberg said.

The International Association of Great Lakes Research plans to host a virtual conference to continue the conversation surrounding Great Lakes research during a time of uncertainty.

“We want to keep the research agenda of the Great Lakes front and center,” Manninen said. “It’s important that these researchers hear what’s going on in other parts of the lakes.”

Students seem especially interested in the virtual conference, she said.

“They want to get their research out there, and they want to get the experience of presenting, even if it’s remotely.”

Amy Rosemond, president of the Society for Freshwater Science, summed up the sentiment of resilience in a March 20th message:

“Freshwater science runs deep and around barriers and challenges. I have complete confidence that we will find ways to sustain each other and our science.”

For now, the biggest barrier remains the unknown.

“If virus-related quarantines continue into the season, we risk having to wait eight more months to get into the field,” said Andrew Barnard, director of the Great Lakes Research Center at Michigan Technological University.

In a field where seasonal research is so important, this is a scary proposition.

“Right now, it’s a waiting game,” Barnard said.

This story was corrected April 21, 2020, to note that the Robert B. Annis Water Resources Institute has not yet made a decision on having summer research and education cruises.

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