Peru Fieldwork Team Perseveres During Lockdown


As Senior Research Scientist Steve Archer and his daughter Maddy flew to Lima, Peru, in early February, their thoughts were focused on the fieldwork ahead. They had an ambitious experiment to set up off the coast of nearby La Punta, and Maddy would continue the research on her own for almost two months after Steve left.

In just a few weeks, everything changed. Concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic caused the government to shut Peru's borders in mid-March and impose a strict quarantine on all who remained in the country. The daily fieldwork routine was thrown into chaos, but concerted efforts by the project's coordinators soon allowed the researchers to continue collecting important measurements.

"The situation is pretty tricky and our capacity is definitely reduced, but we have managed to keep going and are doing as much as we can," Maddy said. "Things are really locked down at the moment and the atmosphere can be a bit tense, but it's great to have something to focus on, and being in the boats is a good break from quarantine."

Maddy is volunteering on the project, gaining hands-on experience before studying ocean science in college – and she is certainly having a unique field experience. As she and the other members of the research team wait to return to their home countries, they are maintaining the experiment through creative solutions to the new problems that arise.

When their host institute, the Instituto del Mar del Peru (IMARPE) closed due to the quarantine, Maddy quickly moved her equipment to a shipping container so that she could continue processing samples. She and the other researchers must carry letters from the German embassy and IMARPE in order to do anything other than buy food. For some, walking to the boats requires them to pass through police checkpoints, and they all must adhere to a nightly curfew and wear masks whenever they are outside.

"This is important work, and it's just amazing that the field team has been able to keep it going," Archer said. "It's due to the heroic efforts of the logistics coordinator Andrea Ludwig, and project lead Ulf Riebesell that they have been able to work with local government and institutes to allow this research to continue."

Coordinating and successfully executing an international field experiment under any circumstances is complicated, but in the face of a pandemic, it's downright miraculous. As fears over the virus' spread have restricted travel and in-person gatherings, research cruises and field expeditions around the globe have been canceled or postponed. While they have had to pare down their measurements, Maddy and the other researchers are continuing to work towards answering research questions important to understanding and responding to global climate change.

Part of a long-time effort by the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research in Germany, the project relies on mesocosms, giant containers that isolate thousands of liters of seawater and allow scientists to run contained experiments in realistic ocean conditions. Maddy and the other researchers in La Punta are using them to study a powerful ocean system off the coast, where deep, nutrient-rich waters rise to the surface and stimulate the growth of tiny algae.

These flourishing algae support productive anchovy populations – so booming, in fact, that the Peruvian anchovy fishery is the largest fishery in the world. As the oceans and atmosphere warm, however, the processes of "upwelling" that bring deep water to the surface could change position geographically – with consequences for the remarkable ocean productivity of this region.

"The Peruvian anchovy fishery is enormously valuable and has huge consequences on that the economics of the country," Archer said. "We're trying to get a better understanding of just how these systems work, and how we can use that knowledge to help people around the world."

The researchers are interested in the potential value of artificially generating upwelling systems in other off-shore locations, spurring productive fisheries that would create a new food source and support the fishing industry. They also aim to uncover how phytoplankton respond chemically to the additions of the nutrient-rich deep water, and whether harnessing that response may provide a geoengineering approach to mitigating global climate change.

Certain types of phytoplankton produce a gas called dimethyl sulfide. This gas helps form clouds, which reflect the sun's rays and help keep the planet cool. Through this chain of biological and chemical interactions, drawing more nutrient-rich water to the surface may not only stimulate productive fisheries, but also temper the impacts of global climate change.

"Situations like the current pandemic make us consider our priorities, the ways we respond to fear, and the way we prepare for challenges," Archer said. "As we reflect on these lessons and how to apply them to the future, I'm grateful for the incredible efforts the field team has made to keep this important research going."