'Citizen scientists' watch for signs of climate change

People with no formal training are helping scientists track and record birds, fish, stars, and plants in their neighborhoods online.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Field Notes: Second-graders in Tucson, Ariz., record early spring blooms for BudBurst, a 'citizen scientist' project tracking climate change.
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    Bloom: The Chicago Botanic Garden uses 'citizen scientists' through the BudBurst program to gather data on plant species such as this trout lily.
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Kite-flying Benjamin Franklin was one. So was President Thomas Jefferson, who did important work in archaeology at an Indian burial ground. British chemist Michael Faraday, who had only a grammar school education but discovered the principles of electromagnetism, is a prime example. So is Jack Horner, the world-renowned discoverer of dinosaur behavior and adviser to "Jurassic Park," who never finished college.

All of them are among amateur or "citizen" scientists who made important contributions to their fields without advanced degrees or university appointments.

Science educators today are eager to show people of all ages that they, too, can do the work of scientists. Whether it's counting birds, fish, or stars, or checking in on the lives of frogs or butterflies, ordinary Americans are joining in the excitement and rewards of scientific research.

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Can people without formal training really do valuable work? "I believe they can," says Sandra Henderson, national coordinator for Project BudBurst (www.budburst.org).

This spring, Project BudBurst is inviting anyone across the United States to observe and report when trees, shrubs, flowers, or other plants growing near them bud or put out leaves.

"These observations can be very valuable to scientists," says Dr. Henderson, a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo. "[Professional] scientists can't be everywhere, and we're asking volunteers to be these extra eyes on the landscape."

Whether BudBurst volunteers know it or not, they're engaged in phenology, the science of measuring the cyclic events of nature. Over several years, the project will build a database that will, among other things, help professional scientists study how global warming is affecting plant life around the country.

In BudBurst's first full year, thousands of people have signed up, Henderson says. They range from retirees to fifth-grade classrooms, 4-H groups to gardening clubs.

The granddaddy of such citizen science projects is probably the NestWatch program (watch.birds.cornell.edu/nest) sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, N.Y. Since 1965, bird watchers have sent in some 300,000 nest-record cards, noting nest sites, species observed, surrounding habitat, and the number of eggs, young, and fledglings. They could provide a powerful record of the effects of global climate change on nesting birds, but 235,000 cards are still awaiting entry into the online database.

For the past dozen years, watchers have been able to report on nests over the Internet, too. These data have been used in more than 150 peer-reviewed and published scientific papers by professional scientists, says Janis Dickinson, director of citizen science at the lab and an associate professor of natural resources at Cornell University.

Reports are remarkably accurate

NestWatch "is not good for counting how many nests of a certain kind are out there," Dr. Dickinson says, since there's no way of knowing the percentage of nests being observed. "But it's really good for telling when the birds are breeding." Of particular interest now is how climate change may be affecting breeding cycles.

"If we can secure funding to get the historic nest-record cards entered into NestWatch, the data will cover exactly the right time period" for studying this question, she says.

The data collected are often remarkably accurate, and the large sample sizes make the analysis very powerful even when there are errors in the data.

When a citizen scientist reports a bird that normally doesn't live in a region, a reviewer for the lab will contact the volunteer to confirm the sighting. Often the citizen scientist will send in a photo to prove that the bird is really there, even though it's a rare or unexpected sighting.

Occasional mistakes, such as accidentally keyboarding an extra digit to a number, are easily spotted as part of some 500 "filters" the lab uses to catch anomalies in the data, Dickinson says.

Celebrate Urban Birds, another citizen science program at the lab, is an easy entry-level project that lets people report sightings of 16 common species. In the Great Backyard Bird Count, conducted in February, volunteers tally migrating birds at a time when they are at the southernmost point in their migration.

For those who love nature but can't get outside, NestCams let birders peer inside nests via their computers, and its sister project, CamClickrs, allows them to report in on what they see. Researchers can't be constantly watching the NestCams, so citizen scientists help by reporting whether they're seeing an empty or occupied nest, chicks or adults, and making other observations.

Part data entry, part social network

For the participants, NestCams is a social network and CamClickrs "is a game," Dickinson says. "You get these [online] conversations around what's happened" at a particular nest, she says. Some are purely emotional reactions. If a snake gets into a nest, for example, NestCam viewers may want someone to save the chicks. But the nest and camera may be in another state, Dickinson says, and, besides, that would be interfering with the course of nature.

Numerous other groups conduct similar citizen scientist programs, says Shawn Carlson, founder and executive director of the Society for Amateur Scientists (SAS) in Aurora, Ill. The key to success, he says, is that "people have to feel valued and have to see that their effort has gone to something worthwhile."

Amateur science is like a pyramid, Dr. Carlson says, with people who participate in wildlife counts at the bottom, learning the basics of collecting scientific data. At the top are a handful of serious amateurs who have managed to get their work published in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

The SAS is now developing Labrats, a science education program for children ages 11 to 18. The after-school club would enable kids to learn the ethics of good science and conduct their own scientific research. Its motto is "Do the experiment," that is, go find the truth yourself, Carlson says. He hopes to roll out the program in the Chicago area within the next year and nationwide after that.

A sampling of other citizen science projects includes:

•Project REEF (the Reef Environ­mental Education Foundation, www.reef.org). REEF enlists amateur scuba divers and snorkelers to collect and report on the marine life they encounter as they dive along the US and Canadian coasts.

•Monarch Watch (monarchwatch.org), based at the University of Kansas, engages citizen scientists in collecting and reporting data on migrating butterflies, including tagging and measuring individuals and observing their flight paths. An estimated 100,000 students and adults participate in the program.

•Frogwatch USA (www.frogwatch.org), a decade-old frog- and toad-monitoring program managed by the National Wildlife Federation and the US Geological Survey, draws on citizen scientists to collect data vital to protecting frogs and toads. On May 3, "Record the Ribbit 2008" volunteers will watch and listen for frogs and toads in their areas and report their findings online.

•"The Great Worldwide Star Count" (starcount.org) asks participants to look skyward after dark, count the stars in certain constellations, and report what they've seen online. The count gives scientists data on the amount of light pollution present in various locations.

Amateurs have distinguished record

Amateurs have a long tradition of success as astronomers, Carlson says. Citizen scientists squinting through telescopes have been the first to discover supernovas and distant galaxies, comets and asteroids.

"The universe is a big place," Carlson says. "The total number of questions out there to be asked and answered is far beyond what the professionals have time to answer.... All of this is really ripe ground for amateur scientists."

Scientific research is simply "organized curiosity," Dickinson says. She hopes citizen scientists will become more confident about their own ability to understand science and that they'll become more inquisitive about science issues in the news. When they hear about a new drug or other discovery, they'll know to ask "What's the evidence? It can cross into all kinds of areas," she says.

What's more, "It's fun," Henderson says. As part of Project BudBurst, she's watching and reporting on lilac, aspen, and chokecherry trees that grow on her property east of Boulder. "I go out every morning ... and I do my little round of [checking] my trees," she says. "It's almost like a little treasure hunt."

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