12 Ways to Channel Your Inner Citizen Scientist

Grizzly print, and a notebook. Photo: Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation

Rachel Carson earned a master's degree in zoology from John Hopkins University and spent most of her career working as a marine biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But after her fourth book, Silent Spring, garnered pesticide manufacturers some unwanted publicity, the pesticide industry attempted to discredit Carson by claiming she wasn’t a trained biologist, writes Paul Brooks in his biography Rachel Carson: The Writer at Work.

The irony here is that in Silent Spring, which turns 50 this month and is arguably responsible for starting the environmental movement, Carson championed the growing concerns of untrained biologists. She listened to backyard botanists who simply observed nature and were alarmed by the indiscriminant death that DDT appeared to be doling out to songbirds, bees and other non-target species around their homes. Armed with their anecdotes and her own rigorous scientific research, Carson raised many red flags and brought the word “ecology” into the general lexicon.

Today, these untrained biologists actually have a moniker: citizen scientists. They also have many more ways to contribute to our understanding of the health of our environment.

Citizen science demographics used to trend toward the close-to-retirement set who like to study water quality, or toward younger, tech-savvy male astronomers, says Darlene Cavalier, founder of SciStarter, a hub for citizen science information and opportunities. But citizen science is becoming increasingly accessible and interesting to the general, outdoor-recreating public, thanks both to the connections between citizen science and climate change research and to the power of smartphones. 

“Smartphones are increasingly equipped with sensors that makes it so easy to become involved in citizen science,” says Cavalier. “It removes the fear of giving bad data and it makes it harder to say participating isn’t convenient. People can’t really say ‘I don’t have the tools or knowledge I need.’ The barriers are falling.”

Whether it’s collecting marine debris or chasing butterflies or tracking grizzly bears, there’s something for budding citizen scientists of every stripe and appetite for adventure.

Grab your waterproof-breathable pocket protector and check out these citizen science resources:

1: You’d do well to start by perusing SciStarter’s Project Finder tool, which lets you drill down both by activity, location and topic (climate, food, insects, oceans, etc.).

2: Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation is a Montana-based organization that recruits athletes, mountaineers and weekend warriors to collect data—stuff that conservation researchers and climate scientists would otherwise not have the funding or manpower to collect—and then connects that data with the researchers who need it to better understand whatever it is they’re studying. The group’s founder and director, Gregg Treinish, is an adventurer and a scientist. His efforts to bring citizen science into the world of outdoor adventure have been impressive and successful and the group has matched doers with thinkers in just about every corner of the world, from Mount Everest to the Congo. “We have a group paddling the Atlantic coast for a seagull research program, we’ve got people tracking [invasive] garlic mustard plants, [and] we’ve got people boating in the Great Lakes using Secchi disks to measure turbidity,” says Treinish.

Some trips are done solo while others are guided. ASC is also starting to do guided trips with specific groups, such as veterans and grade school kids. Here’s a list of upcoming trips.

3: BioBlitz events are short (one- or two-day) intensive surveys that focus on a specific area. Participants—often including children—try to identify as much plant and animal life as they can during the blitz, and the events are both educational and helpful to those who need to collect the species inventories. BioBlitz events are held year-round and world-round.

The National Park Service has held BioBlitz events for the past few years, with Rocky Mountain National Park hosting the 2012 event just two weeks ago.

4: Invasive Plant Citizen Science Program: There aren’t nearly enough park rangers to scour the million acres of Glacier National Park, searching for invasive plants that can wreck havoc on the area’s ecosystem. That’s where you come in.  Participants receive online training before venturing into the park to spot and map the 126 exotic (and in some cases aggressively invasive) plants that keep popping up.

5: Project BudBurst: Temperature, rainfall and day length combine to govern a plant’s lifecycle. To help scientists understand what global climate change is doing to the process, citizen scientists volunteer to monitor when first buds appear, when the first flowers appear, when leaves drop in the fall, and other parts of plant lifecycles. Fall is nigh and so is the 2nd Annual Fall Into Phenology field campaign, which starts September 10th and October 31st. Click here to participate. The National Phenology Network offers a map that shows citizen science plant and bird monitoring programs around the country.

6: Biking is for birders. As the Hollywood ode to birding, The Big Year, attests, obsessive birders get even more obsessive while pursuing a record-number of bird sightings in one rotation around the sun. Ditto, Big Day events, during which birders race through 24-hour birding epics. Add limits on the vehicles one can use to get to those birds, and it gets really interesting. The Green Big Day is a day-long birding event, held around the world, that restricts participants to just bike or foot. The approach adds some actual exercise to the adrenaline rush of obsessive birding.

7: Audubon holds birdathon fundraisers, some of which are catered to specific groups, such as men or women or novice birders or (no kidding) business executives. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society partnered to create eBird, an online registry where you can report the type and location of birds you've observed. In March of this year alone, participants reported more than 3.1 million bird observations, so the registry is a boon for conservation efforts. And the Cornell Lab's NestWatch program offers an online tool for birders to share observations on nesting birds across the country.

8: Avert the Zombee Apocalypse. Seriously, the trouble that honey bees are having is not a laughing matter, and when they have trouble, we have trouble. The ZomBee Watch is looking for citizen scientists all over the country to track honey bees that are being parasitized by the zombie fly Apocephalus borealis. Once infected, the bees leave their nests at night, fly erratically toward light sources, and eventually die. The project is asking people to map instances of infected bees and send in samples of the dead.

9: If you’re more a butterfly person, you might consider the North American Butterfly Association’s Butterfly Count Program.

10: There are many Streamwatch groups around the country which connect boaters and hikers with water quality monitoring programs. Two examples: the Rivanna watershed in Virginia and the Kenai watershed forum on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula.

11: Divers are in demand for everything from shark watch programs (in the Atlantic and Pacific) to coral reef monitoring to invasive lionfish tracking to marine trash collecting.

12: The plastic pollution crusaders at 5 Gyres raise funds and awareness through the help of a small navy of citizen scientists. It recently completed expeditions to the Pacific (looking for tsunami debris) and the Great Lakes.

—Mary Catherine O'Connor