Why the Pros Need “Citizen Science”

iNaturalist Update: A biologist’s take on the potential for citizen science in a changing climate

(Photo: Richard Morgenstein)

Last month I went out to Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve near Stanford, where Scott Loarie and Ken-ichi Ueda showed me and about a dozen docents how to use the new iNaturalist iPhone app, which Ueda created. The aim of the app is to make recording and sharing of accurate field observations incredibly simple. It’s still in testing mode and not yet available to the public. “Citizen scientists” can already upload their digital photos and share them with an online community of naturalists around the world, at the iNaturalist website.

This week I spoke with Healy Hamilton, who directs the Center for Applied Biodiversity Informatics at the California Academy of Sciences. Below are some excerpts from our interview about climate change, citizen science, and iNaturalist:

Q: What’s the potential of citizen science?
A: The world is changing faster than ever before in the history of all human  civilization. There’s no way that scientists can monitor those changes. It’s critical for us to understand the pace of change, and where change is taking place the most.

With global change, there’s a fundamental rearrangement of where species live.  We already know almost everywhere we look that species are on the move trying to track their preferred climate envelopes. To understand the implications of this kind of shifting, we need to have people help us monitor these changes, both the rate of the change and the locations of the changes. This is where there’s a profound role for citizen science.

Q: How can a tool like iNaturalist help scientists study climate change?
A:…Citizen science can help us understand how climate change is unfolding in situ. Every species has edges to their range, so there’s sort of a central range, a northern leading edge, a southern edge, eastern and western edges.  Citizens can help us monitor how climate change is impacting the edges of those ranges, which is where climate impacts are most likely to occur.

For example, some of the easternmost redwood forests are likely to experience the highest summer temperatures [in the redwoods’ range], and summer temps seem to be changing quite rapidly, maybe more than temps at other times of the year.  So if citizens can help us say, ‘Look, I just saw a grove of redwood trees and the leaves are brown and this is where it’s located,’ we can actually map climate in that area and see how climate change is unfolding on the landscape.  There’s no way scientists can be everywhere at once to understand how these changes are unfolding, but citizens are hiking through redwood forests all the time.

…So applications such as iNaturalist are going to increase the biodiversity data that scientists have to work with. Not all observations are going to be useful, but many of them will be useful to us. Because of our need for verified observations about what occurs where and when on the planet, as scientists, we think citizen science has a huge role to play in improving our models about forecasting future climate change impacts to species and ecosystems.

Q: Why do we need to study these changes?  What’s the big picture?
A: Climate change is the single most important threat that’s facing all of human society.  If we continue to emit the current rates of greenhouse gases into the future, and if we do end up with 900 or 1,000 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere at the end of the century, we will be living on a fundamentally different planet, and that transition is not going to be comfortable for us.  All of our society, all of our infrastructure, all of our food resources, our forest resources, the things that we need, the things we’ve evolved our society around consuming, they like the climate the way it was, [at] about 150-300 parts per million of CO2.  So it’s important to understand how climate change is going to influence biodiversity, the biodiversity we depend on, every bite of food we eat, the clothes on our back, all of our paper and forest products. It influences how diseases are transmitted and all kinds of public health, food security, and national security issues.

In this short video, Scott Loarie and Ken-ichi Ueda explain how the iNaturalist iPhone app works.