Monday, May 14, 2012

Citizen scientists, critical in addressing Climate Change


Some of the solutions that will help us adapt to and mitigate Climate Change are data collection for filling in knowledge gaps on specific issues threatening our environment and educating the public. So rather than focus on proving what 13 departments of our government (see below) already know about the science behind Climate Change,

Department of Agriculture, Department of Commerce, Department of Defense, Department of Energy, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of the Interior, Department of State, Department of Transportation, Environmental Protection Agency, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, National Science Foundation, Smithsonian Institution, United State Agency for International Development

the new “The National Global Change Research Plan: 2012-2021” just released in April by the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) describes the threats that the various departments will be addressing and how to assess and disseminate that information internally between departments and externally to the public and other nations.

It’s a big job. Actually, given the doubt that still exists on Climate Change in the public sector and the dearth of information we need to understand just how Climate Change will affect our environment in the future, it’s just about impossible. But coming to the rescue could be a massive shift (in the way FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps was a massive shift) to train and disperse thousands of Citizen Scientists upon our lands and collect the crucial data we need to address Climate Change:

In addition, as discussed, observation of ecological and social systems can be dramatically improved by collecting new kinds of data or using new data collection methods, including emerging opportunities to vastly scale-up the use of non-traditional data sources and “citizen science” research programs. For example, in the ecological sciences, citizen observer networks have revealed long-term, climate-driven trends in organismal phenologies. (Page 44, The National Global Change Research Plan: 2012-2021”)

Also, the recent New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) funded Report 11-18 Response to Climate Change in New York State (ClimAID) points out the need for citizen scientists to gather critical data as our atmosphere warms up. This from an extensive (600 pages +) report on the changes coming to New York State because of Climate Change and plans to adapt to it:

Expand Educational Outreach and Citizen Science Programs | Educational outreach to private landowners should be a high priority to raise their awareness of the issues and their critical role in minimizing negative impacts of climate change on New York biodiversity, habitat integrity, and maintenance of important ecosystem services. All sectors of society will benefit from sound information on climate change, its potential impacts on natural areas, its implications for ecosystem services affecting human communities, and what they can do to participate in adaptation and mitigation. Page 194, ClimAID)

Although technology has increased exponentially in the last decades—super computers, satellites, and the Internet—to analyze data about our environment, there are few technological replacements for trained human observations to detect local changes in land, water, and air. It will take boots on the ground—sometimes private landowner’s own property, as 60% of US land is privately owned—to accomplish this.

There are efforts already going on for human data collection on many levels:

  • USA National Phenology Network | USA National Phenology Network “The USA National Phenology Network brings together citizen scientists, government agencies, non-profit groups, educators and students of all ages to monitor the impacts of climate change on plants and animals in the United States. The network harnesses the power of people and the Internet to collect and share information, providing researchers with far more data than they could collect alone.”
  • Great Backyard Bird Count “The Great Backyard Bird Count is an annual four-day event that engages bird watchers of all ages in counting birds to create a real-time snapshot of where the birds are across the continent. Anyone can participate, from beginning bird watchers to experts. It takes as little as 15 minutes on one day, or you can count for as long as you like each day of the event. It’s free, fun, and easy—and it helps the birds.”
  • Alliance for the Great Lakes Adopt-a-Beach™ allows volunteer Adopt-a-Beach™ teams across all five Great Lakes to collect data that is making a positive impact for our lakes! Information collected by volunteers is being shared with local, state and regional beach health officials and is used by the Alliance to help protect and preserve our coastal areas. During the online introductory training, Alliance staff will provide an interactive webinar complete with a program overview and tips and methods for data collection. Data is gathered through litter monitoring and collection, scientific based observations, and simple citizen science tests. These trainings are also a perfect opportunity to learn about the Adopt-a-Beach™ online system and anything new offered through the program. For more information about the training and the Adopt-a-Beach™ program, please visit
  • Citizen Scientists League “promotes responsible scientific observation, experimentation, discovery, and invention. We encourage active participation, networking and publishing by science enthusiasts at all levels of education and experience.”
  • Community Air Screen Program - NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation “This new community-based program works with volunteers from local communities to screen for toxic air pollutants in order to begin to address some local air quality concerns. The goal of the Community Air Screen program is for community groups and citizens to partner with DEC to collect local-scale air samples. Approximately 12 to 18 applicants will be selected for this program. A total number of sixty (60) air samples will be analyzed statewide. Individuals as well as not-for-profits and neighborhood and community groups in New York State may apply.”
  • And, locally, join in a active transportation traffic count: The Active Transportation Working Group, a spin-off the Rochester Cycling Alliance’s April 2011 Active Transportation Symposium, is searching for volunteers to conduct bicycle and pedestrian traffic counts in Rochester and Monroe County during May 2012 as part of the National Bicycle and Pedestrian Documentation Project, We are planning to conduct the counts during commute times in the A.M. and P.M. on May 15-17. You will be using a clip board and recording on a paper form during the count and standing outdoors. We will have some selected sites. We will be determining other locations dependant on the number of volunteers available. Bring a friend that is willing to help. Help us select additional sites. We are also planning to use automated equipment at some selected locations but our first effort will be mainly manual. We will tell you about the automated counting devices at our disposal. If you are willing to do a count please send an email to Richard DeSarra, . We will arrange other training dates as needed depending on the response.

But these efforts not nearly enough to accumulate the incredible amount of information we will need about our existing environment before and after it starts seriously warming up. In order for our government to provide resiliency to our waste-water, transportation, and other infrastructures, we are going to need accurate and continual monitoring of our environment to determine how to adapt to the changes coming. Our industries need to know how water supplies will change in any given area due to warming. And the public is going to need to know how their property value--including all the plants, animals, and water availability—will change as our climate warms.

What can citizen scientists do?

  • Fill in the knowledge gaps that exist in our environment, in some cases before a noticeable change occurs to provide an extensive baseline of pre-warming data.
  • “Development of citizen-science programs that can provide accurate and reliable data on change in species distributions and movements” (Page 459, ClimAID)
  • Provide a volunteer base for business incubation that would churn out trained data collectors for industries and even new start-ups.
  • Help extract information from existing studies and info gleaned from social media to connect-the-dots to local events—like extreme weather events.
  • Once trained, ordinary folks can provide public outreach for government and industries on how Climate Change will affect specific regions.
  • Join expeditions to remote areas that have little existing data on our environment. Especially useful would be to see how pristine environments operate as models of ecologies not yet despoiled by humans—like wetlands and rivers untainted by industrial waste.
  • Helping extract old data, like from shipping and ice thaw records, and insert into new data systems.
  • Become a Climate Champion to coordinate sustainability efforts in small companies to reduce carbon footprints.
  • I could go on and on…

Here’s what Climate Change looks like: specific humidity going up; troposphere (near surface) air temperature going up; glaciers diminishing; temperatures over oceans increasing; snow cover going down; sea-surface temperatures going up; sea-levels going up; sea ice going down; ocean heat going up; temperature over land going up. (Page 47, The National Global Change Research Plan: 2012-2021)

It’s time to stop paying the polluters and the folks who caused the Great Recession we are trying to crawl out of and develop a corps of citizen Scientists for jobs and critical data we need to adapt to Climate Change. What if instead of operating our economy to bail out too-big-to-fail banks and pay top executives millions of bucks, we channel public funds to offer grants and subsides for data collectors--not billions to oil companies as we do now? (BTW: you can go here to stop that nonsense: Petition - Support the End Polluter Welfare Act: Bernie Sanders - U.S. Senator for Vermont)

Despite the silence on Climate Change in our upcoming presidential election, our government ‘gets it’. Not only do we need more information to address something as wildly complex as Climate Change, we are risking valuable information being lost forever and this increases every year. If the public is looking for jobs, they need to read official reports on Climate Change and petition their government to act on enlisting Citizen Scientists.

USGCRP research is addressing the need for improved understanding of the rates and consequences of shifts in species’ ranges through new, more comprehensive observations. By bringing together multiple data sources of species occurrence (collected by scientists, local and national governments, and citizen scientists), and incorporating these data into models of ecosystem and climate functioning, scientists can help predict important shifts for agriculture and forestry, assist in the strengthening of protected areas, and better respond to outbreaks of invasive species. (Page 23, The National Global Change Research Plan: 2012-2021)

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