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

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
: 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
, 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
. 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
) and the Great Lakes.

—Mary Catherine O'Connor

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