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Researchers look for unique ways to collect data as COVID-19 changes methods

Aaron Fairweather has 27 colonies of ants to keep happy in the living room by getting the temperature, humidity and light just right although the environment at home may not feel quite as comfortable as in a lab.

The PhD entomology student from the University of Guelph said it was the only way to continue collecting data as COVID-19 puts a damper on research and labs can’t be used.

Fairweather, like several other scientists, is trying to make the best of the summer when researchers typically spend long hours outdoors collecting data in the field.

“It’s a pretty bleak year for research,” Fairweather said. “There will be a gap in the knowledge.”

Fairweather had been planning an intensive research project on ants since last fall but said a lack of the usual resources could mean a setback for an entire year.

“I have to wait till next year, probably, to be able to get in and do the active experiments that I wanted to do.”

While the data collected from the colonies of ants at home could help, that type of research is not feasible for many scientists so a gap in research might mean data could be skewed or years of work have to be thrown out, Fairweather said.

Arthur Fredeen, a professor in the Natural Resources and Environmental Studies Institute at the University of Northern British Columbia, said he is concerned about teaching field work.

His ecology class this fall requires working with students taking measurements and observations in the field, he said.

“I’ve had to grapple with the technologies that can help me deliver the course online, even though it will be quite challenging to do so in an adequate way.”

Pascal Lee won’t be testing equipment and studying rocks in the high Arctic this month, likely for the first time in nearly 25 years.

The chairman of the Mars Institute and a planetary scientist with the California-based SETI Institute does research on Devon Island because its surface resembles the “red planet.”

This year his team planned on testing a new space suit and an “astronaut smart glove.”

The group hopes to make it to the island in September but if that falls through, their equipment may have to be tested in the United States.

“Missing a summer for us means missing a year,” he said.

The choice for some researchers is between losing out on a year of data collection through field work and adapting to quarantine on a boat for a month.

The director of the University of British Columbia’s Marine Mammal Research Unit will be doing the latter with eight researchers as they continue a study from last year to determine if there is a shortage of chinook salmon for southern resident killer whales.

Andrew Trites said the researchers are creating their own bubble on the boat, starting with a two-week quarantine period before they board the vessel in mid-August.

Everybody is “a little paranoid,” Trites said.

“In the end if the pandemic doesn’t kill us, maybe being confined together will,” he said laughing. “It’ll be quite a challenge.”

On a similar research trip last year, scientists got off the boat after docking and went into cities and towns, but that won’t happen this year, he said.

Only one person, masked and gloved, will be allowed to leave the wooden boat called Gikumi to get supplies while the vessel is refuelled.

“We’re going to be packed a little bit like sardines but everybody has a job on the boat,” he said, noting team members are aware of the effect the quarantine period might have on their mental health although being able to see the horizon may help.

Field work is important, Trites said because there is an element of biology, which can’t be done without being near animals.

While computers and mathematical models make projections and look at probabilities, he said answers to some questions can come only by observing animals in their natural habitat and recording what’s going on to make meaningful comparisons and draw conclusions.

What the team will miss, Trites said, is the interaction with researchers on other boats.

One of the biggest losses this research season may be the generation of new ideas, reflection, and the “ability to brainstorm together to solve biological mysteries,” he said.

“So, we’ll be waving at other researchers whom we know from a distance, and hoping there will be an opportunity in six months, a year, year-and-a-half, where you can finally sit down together and have much more meaningful conversations.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 1, 2020.

 

Hina Alam, The Canadian Press

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Helicopter was preparing to land before fatal Newfoundland crash: TSB

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — The Transportation Safety Board of Canada says a helicopter that crashed near a Newfoundland lake last month was preparing to land and refuel before the pilot lost control of the aircraft.

The federal agency shared new details today about the ongoing investigation into the July 20 crash that killed one man near Thorburn Lake, about 200 kilometres northwest of St. John’s.

Three men were on board the Robinson R44 light utility helicopter that had left Springdale Airport in Newfoundland on one leg of a cross-country pleasure flight.

The pilot had planned to refuel at a maintenance facility on the northeast side of the lake and completed a circuit around the gravel parking lot where he wanted to land.

TSB investigators say as the helicopter began to climb vertically from tree-top level, the pilot lost control and the aircraft crashed into the ground.

RCMP said a 69-year-old Gambo man died at the scene and two others, a 68-year-old man from Aquaforte and a 54-year-old man from St. John’s, were taken to hospital with serious injuries.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 14, 2020.

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Man pleads guilty in gas-and-dash death of Alberta gas station owner

WETASKIWIN, Alta. — A man who was charged with second-degree murder after an Alberta gas station owner was killed in a gas-and-dash has pleaded guilty to manslaughter.

Ki Yun Jo, who was 54, was killed outside his Fas Gas station in Thorsby, about 70 kilometres southwest of Edmonton, on Oct. 6, 2017.

Police have said he tried to stop a driver who sped off in a stolen white cub van without paying for fuel.

A witness saw Jo hanging onto the van’s passenger side mirror and, when the vehicle swerved, he was tossed to the ground and run over.

Twenty-nine year old Mitchell Robert Sydlowski of Spruce Grove, Alta., also pleaded guilty in a Wetaskiwin courtroom to failing to remain at the scene of a fatal accident.

Shortly after Jo’s death, the Alberta government moved to bring in legislation requiring drivers to prepay before filling up at gas stations.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on Aug. 14, 2020

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Montreal’s Notre-Dame Basilica faces funding crunch as COVID-19 curbs tourism

MONTREAL — One of Canada’s best-known religious landmarks, the Notre-Dame Basilica in Montreal, is seeking urgent government assistance to withstand a budget shortfall caused by COVID-19.

Claudia Morissette, director of the historic church in Old Montreal, said Notre-Dame expects to be short about $12 million in revenues this year as cultural events and guided visits remain suspended due to the pandemic.

“It’s huge. It represents 85 per cent of our total revenue,” Morissette said in an interview.

She said that money is “absolutely necessary” to preserve and restore the stone church, which was constructed in the 1820s in the Gothic Revival style and remains one of the main tourist destinations in the city, welcoming around one million visitors per year before the pandemic.

A first phase of restoration work is already underway on its facade, but Morissette said the church is concerned it will not be able to finance the second and third phases of restoration on the building’s east and west towers.

These first three phases are expected to cost $9.2 million out of a total of nearly $30 million of work needed to preserve and restore the building over the next decade, the church estimates.

“We can’t press pause (on phases two and three) because that would risk putting the integrity of the towers in peril and (could) even become dangerous,” said Morissette, adding that delays on the work could also lead to an increase in overall costs.

Notre-Dame is not the only church in Quebec facing economic challenges due to COVID-19, which has hit the province hard.

Across the province, where the Catholic Church historically played a central role but has seen a decline in recent decades, many churches have struggled to pay rent and maintain their aging buildings as the pandemic forced them this spring to suspend in-person services.

Quebec’s Culture Department announced last month that it would invest $15 million to preserve religious heritage, targeting 62 buildings and three organs. Culture Minister Nathalie Roy said the investment also would help stimulate the economy and create jobs for artisans and labourers.

Morissette said Notre-Dame received $1 million last year from Quebec’s Religious Heritage Council, a non-profit organization that supports the conservation of historic buildings, to help finance part of phase one of its restoration. But the church did not get any of the new funding.

“We understand that (the money) goes quickly, and we also understand that we’re not the only ones. We know that COVID-19 affected many people,” Morissette said. “But we’re a major attraction. We are one of the major patrimonial jewels.”

The Quebec Culture Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Canadian Press.

Andreanne Jalbert-Laramee, cultural heritage adviser at Quebec’s Religious Heritage Council, said that if Notre-Dame is struggling, smaller and less renowned churches are no doubt struggling, too.

“The worry is that if their financial situation is difficult, they will delay these restoration projects, this work, and that will make the situation even more difficult for those buildings,” Jalbert-Laramee said in an interview.

She said that while about $40 million is needed to restore and preserve religious heritage buildings across Quebec, the government’s $15-million investment is a good step.

“These are interventions that are essential for the survival of these buildings,” Jalbert-Laramee said. “We see that the need is great, the need is there.”

For her part, Morissette said she remains concerned the Notre-Dame Basilica will not be able to finance its restoration.

While daily masses resumed last month, guided tours and shows that draw tourists to the church have not — meaning that Notre-Dame missed out on the summer tourist season, which typically draws hundreds of thousands of visitors.

The church said it sold nearly 833,500 tickets for guided tours and over 227,000 tickets to its light show called Aura in 2018.

Morissette called for any of the three levels of government — federal, provincial and municipal — to provide urgent financial aid to help Notre-Dame withstand its losses.

“Because it’s the symbol of the founding of the City of Montreal, that it’s one of the most well-known religious monuments in North America, that it’s the main tourist attraction in Old Montreal … we need to preserve this gem so that the next generations can enjoy it,” she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 14, 2020.

Jillian Kestler-D’Amours, The Canadian Press

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