• Arctic lichen

    One example of the lichen POLAR researcher Ian Hogg monitors using probes and satellite images. (Photo: POLAR)

The COVID-19 pandemic has effectively closed off Canada’s North, where communities have shut their borders to protect already vulnerable health and language systems. The Northwest Territories, the Yukon and Nunavut have all said only essential workers and people who live in their territories will be permitted in. 

Even though some researchers — like Ian Hogg, team lead of ecosystem science for Polar Knowledge Canada — own property in the North, there will be no access granted for teams of researchers to come and collect data. Hogg’s research involves tracking small insects and monitoring lichen, which can’t be done remotely.

While Hogg understands why these rules are in place, he shared his insights on the ramifications of not being able to conduct field research this summer.  

On how the pandemic has affected research this summer

Our real boots-on-the-ground type of research is the research that won’t happen or go ahead as it would have done. That’s the big change that’s occurred. But there are still things we can do from afar. Under normal circumstances we would have been going crazy getting things ready. Working in a remote location you have to do a lot of pre-planning, with special teams and equipment, arranging to get the freight up there ahead of time. Even simple things like booking travel enough in advance to get good deals on airfares — that’s all a regular part of what we do. With this, we haven’t been able to plan. 

For a lot of our international colleagues, it would be difficult for them to travel anyway. At some point you have to make a call that [this research] just won’t happen. That’s where we’re at now. On the positive side, there’s work that we can do and we continue to do that doesn’t require work on the ground. Satellites don’t care about COVID-19, so we can do some remote sensing, some vegetation monitoring. That kind of work can continue on. 

On using field guides and locals in the regions

We’re not allowed to use the facilities, so we can’t even use some of the locals we know. We all live in the communities when we’re there; we have people working with us. They can easily do the work once we get the green light. 

On losing a year of data

With any data set you watch a line happily go along and then there’s this gap in the middle … it’s not perfect, but it’s also not the end of the world. With everything else going on right now, it’s really put into perspective what’s important. Not everyone might agree with my slightly relaxed attitude on it, but at this point I think it just is what it is. 

On changing future plans based on this pandemic experience

To some extent we will change how we prepare. One of the things we’ll probably do, is that our work involves a lot of “ground-truthing” the satellite industry. One is a lichen monitoring site, we have probes stuck into lichen so we can tell when they’re turning on. Even though those probes are on the ground in Cambridge Bay, we can see from elsewhere what’s happening. But being on the ground, we can “truth” what’s going on. So if the probe says the sun is out and the lichen is coming to life, but you’re standing there and it’s under three feet of snow … we can verify our data. In the future, that kind of data (ground-truthing) will be much more of a priority to us.

Scientist looking at map on computer

Ian Hogg shows a springtail he tracked during one summer of Arctic research. (Photo: DW/V. Meduna)

On finding the positives

It is a big scramble getting ready for the field season. There’s a big worry in forgetting equipment and getting people ready. It’s a different environment now to think about those things differently. Is this mad scramble the best approach? Is the way we’ve been collecting our data the best way, or is there a different way to do it? There’s opportunities now to reanalyze data and look at data you weren’t planning on analyzing. I’ve also used the time “off” to finish manuscripts, which is a rare opportunity. 

Related: Antarctic springtail secrets