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COVID Pandemic Affecting Researchers, But Not Lake Erie Algae Blooms

The coronavirus pandemic has changed life for many of us, including university researchers keeping an eye on Lake Erie. Teams only recently set off into the lake for water quality measurements, meaning they don’t have as much data as usual this year, and lab work is still disrupted by social distancing.

ideastream’s Tony Ganzer spoke with Chris Winslow, director of the Ohio Sea Grant program, about how the pandemic is affecting The Ohio State University’s Stone Lab on the lake, and the blooms themselves.

When considering this year’s algae bloom predictions, Winslow explained the blooms are fed by nutrients flowing in two ways: point source, like through pipes, and non-point source, like farm run-off into the Maumee River.

When we think about what the projection might look like, the non-point runoff really is not being affected at all by COVID, because our farmers, rightfully so, are considered essential personnel. We need to eat the food that they produce, right? Either directly or indirectly.

So for this whole COVID life that we’re living in right now, ag activity has been the same has it’s been in previous years. So all that’s really going to dictate what’s changed the non-point contribution is precipitation and rainfall.

The scientists, when you get them all together, there’s not a lot of modification to what we would normally calculate to predict the bloom size in a COVID versus non-COVID year.

What about daily work for researchers, how has that changed for researchers monitoring Lake Erie, and the tributaries, especially in the face of budget cuts?

The budget cuts are always worrisome, but a lot of researchers that are out there have grants to do this work. The grants are already in-hand. A lot of those haven’t been rescinded or pulled back. What has really been the issue has not necessarily been funding, at least that’s not what I’ve seen. What it is is our ability just to get out in the field.

Because there’s a lot of restrictions and rightfully so on social distancing, and so our scientists weren’t allowed to be in the lab or out on the lake. I believe we started sampling, and our colleagues at Bowling Green State University and University of Toledo, were not out in the water until basically the early part of June, so the first or second week of June.

They’re out there now, and our researcher, Dr. Justin Chaffin, is out collecting the normal samples he collects, but they’re all being frozen, because the next step is, even though he’s allowed now to be on the water, out in open air collecting samples, putting him in a lab in a congested space with other colleagues is not something that’s been approved yet. We know NOAA is out, and USGS is out, but we’re not all out in full force, because it really is a social distancing question and it’s also a lab analysis question.”

Do you think that will have much of an impact being able to identify trends, or certain parameters of research that you have to keep track of at solid intervals?

Researchers are always in the space where it’s tough when budgets get cut, and we know why they get cut, again not through malicious intent, it’s just the world we live in. The first thing that is usually reduced is routine monitoring. And us scientists are always quoted as saying you can’t manage what you don’t monitor. I’m pretty happy with the level of sampling we’ve done, where at least we don’t have zero data points, but clearly we’re not collecting the robust data set that we have in previous years.

Dr. Laura Johnson at the [National Center for Water Quality Research] is out in the field but usually she has a team of undergrads and other research technicians to help her not only collect, but analyze. Those have been reduced. So, I think we’re getting some of our critical data points, but there’s always a little bit of a hiccup in data collection.

What about undergrads and research assistants, are they losing out on time in the field?

One hundred percent, yes. That’s what pains me the most. All of the courses that we typically offer up at Stone Lab, we had to cancel this year. That’s just an exposure for these students that would look so good on a resume, and many of them it’s an inflection point in their academic career, like it solidifies what they want to do, and what they want to work on.

A lot of the grad students are on grants, and we manage a lot of those grants, not only from NOAA, the federal side, but also we manage some dollars for the governor and the Ohio Department of Higher Education. All of those researchers are contacting us and saying hey, my student can’t get into the lab, can we extend the deadline of these grants? So, not asking for more money necessarily, but asking if we can extend the deadline for some of these grants.

And so folks in my shop and myself and other peers are doing exactly the same thing, we’re trying to modify the grant agreements just to make sure the scope of the work is still done, they’re not asking for more funds but we’re trying to deliver the product that we’ve always wanted to deliver.

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