Pandemic halts Nasa’s NWT field research, but not all is lost

Covid-19 restrictions across North America have forced Nasa to postpone this year’s fieldwork for the Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment – commonly known as Above.

Nasa project manager Peter Griffith told Cabin Radio the US agency’s top priority was the health and safety of its team. Above examines potential drivers of climate change in Alaska and parts of Canada.

Each summer, scientists and researchers arrive in Alaska, the Yukon, and the NWT to study climate variables such as wildfire patterns, permafrost, and soil moisture levels.


This marks year six of the roughly decade-long program.

Studies from the air, using a Nasa Gulfstream jet, form a major part of Above’s research. Radar equipment mounted beneath the aircraft is flown over the NWT to harvest data from the ground.

Because of Covid-19, those airborne research missions and all other field research have been suspended until next year.

In a statement, Nasa administrator Jim Bridenstine said: “We are continuing to work to support our grantees and space act agreement partners.

“Our goal in all this is to ensure this crisis does not rob us of our most precious resource, our team.”


One option: use local help

While losing a year of a 10-year program is a significant blow, scientists taking part in Above said not all is lost.

Asked what a year without field research would mean, Griffith said he believed the Above team would be able to “recover the scientific goals,” in part by using Nasa’s orbiting satellites – which can provide data regardless of the pandemic’s impact on the ground.

Griffith said those satellite observations would allow Nasa scientists to keep gathering and analyzing data and writing papers.

NASA's Tim Miller explains a feature of the team's radar pod to Joanne Speakman and Mandy Bayha

Nasa’s Tim Miller, centre, explains a feature of the Gulfstream jet’s radar pod to NWT residents Joanne Speakman and Mandy Bayha in 2018. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio


Andrew Applejohn, a senior science advisor at the NWT government, said he was confident that research and data collection can still happen.

“We do have some fairly major research infrastructure in this territory that will continue to operate in some capacity,” he said in an online presentation to the Above team last week.

There are a few Covid 19-related roadblocks, Applejohn admitted in his presentation. For example, researchers from outside the NWT aren’t allowed in the territory while pandemic restrictions keep its borders closed.

A potential solution to this problem is training NWT locals to conduct limited amounts of research instead, Applejohn said. As restrictions ease, he believes there will be more opportunities for residents to “go out and collect samples or maintain remote logging equipment and that sort of thing.”

There is so far no firm plan to employ residents as stand-in research assistants.

In an interview with Cabin Radio, Applejohn said work to track climate change must continue, even in a pandemic.

A report commissioned by Environment and Climate Change Canada and released last year concluded that the North is warming at three times the global average.

Previous research from Above science projects has shown the changing climate is altering the characteristics of northern ecosystems, such as modifying the way in which wildfires burn.

“Climate change, or the impacts of a changing climate, don’t stop because of Covid-19,” Applejohn said.

“We’re going to do everything we can to make sure that the Northwest Territories continues to be a place [where] people come and do their research.”