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What's blooming on the citizen science front


A Different Kind of Tsunami: Climate Refugees

Remains of a flooded village in Pakistan in December 2010 (Photo: RIZWAN TABASSUM/AFP/Getty Images)

It’s not so much the planet we need to worry about, it’s each other.  And ourselves.

That’s the message of the documentary Climate Refugees, which aims to portray “the human face of climate change.” The film takes viewers to flooded disaster zones in Bangladesh and China, to tiny island nations like Tuvalu under threat from sea level rise, and to the desert wastelands of Sudan, where, according to the UN,  the devastating war in Darfur has been driven partly by climate change.

Extreme weather events are expected to become more common as the climate continues to change, raising the odds for disastrous floods like the ones Pakistan last year, which displaced more than 20 million people, and major droughts which will likely increase desertification in vulnerable areas of Africa and Asia, threatening food and water supplies for millions of people.

And all of those people will need someplace to go.
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Connecting Citizens and Science… with Smart Phones

Harnessing the power of “citizen science” can be a challenge, but many think technology can provide the missing link.

Scott Loarie demonstrates the iNaturalist iPhone app to docents at Jasper Ridge. (Photo: Richard Morgenstein)

The new iPhone app for the online community iNaturalist is officially out and available for free download from Apple’s App Store.  Its creator, Ken-ichi Ueda, hopes that the new app will make sharing and uploading field observations so easy, that more people will want to document what they find next time they’re out on a hike.

“My primary motivation is to get people outside, thinking about the plants and animals they are seeing and actually recording them,” he said.  “The act of recording really locks it in your mind.” Continue reading

Green Fire Spreading

A new documentary broadens awareness of a timeless thinker

“Civilization has so cluttered this elemental man-earth relationship with gadgets and middlemen that awareness of it is growing dim. We fancy that industry supports us, forgetting what supports industry.”
— Aldo Leopold,
A Sand County Almanac

Everybody in California seems to have at least a vague notion of who John Muir was. Now, with the help of a new documentary film, Aldo Leopold may get more of the props he earned during his fascinating life as a forester and conservationist.

Leopold’s following has been growing since his work in the first half of the 20th century. When Steve Dunsky set about with his co-producers creating Green Fire, they heard plenty of superlatives from the biographers, historians and naturalists they interviewed. One called Leopold the third pillar of conservation’s “Holy Trinity,” with Muir and Henry David Thoreau. Continue reading

Storm Surges and King Tides

Pacific storm makes for some high tides and scary waves on the Bay

Waves slosh on to San Francisco's Embarcadero during Thursday's "king tide" (Photo: Gretchen Weber)

Take naturally-occurring extremely high tides, and add to them high winds and torrential rain, and you get some pretty big seas.

At least, that’s what I got out on the San Francisco Bay today.  How big exactly, is hard to say (our uneducated guessed ran the gamut), but they were big enough to wash over the bow of our 26-foot boat on more than one occasion and to keep most of us aboard holding on for dear life for much of the three-hour voyage.   What I can say for sure is that as I type this blog post, four hours later, my body still feels like I’m rolling up and down and back and forth on some stormy seas.

We braved the weather today to check out the latest round of “king tides” and see how they affect low-lying shorelines in places like Crissy Field, Treasure Island, and SFO. The seas were so rough that we didn’t make it all the way to the airport, but we did see waves crashing over the sea wall along the Embarcadero  just south of the Ferry Building (see video below). At Crissy Field, the beach was nearly submerged and a small footbridge near the mouth of the estuary was almost awash. Continue reading

Photograph High Tides, Glimpse the Future?

High tide at Pier 14 in San Francisco on January 19, 2011 (Photo: Jack Gregg)

This week another round of extremely high tides will hit the California coast, providing a glimpse of what the state can expect as sea levels continue to rise. These “king tides” will roll in from February 16th through the 18th, with the highest swells expected on the morning of the 17th, between 7:30 and 9 a.m.

A consortium of environmental groups is again calling for help documenting these high tides. The San Francisco Bay National Estuarine Reserve (NERR), which is spearheading the local effort, has set up a Flickr site where members of public can share their photos.  Organizers launched the site last month, in time for the king tides in January, and since then more than 80 photos have been uploaded by dozens of contributors. Continue reading

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: Continue reading

Citizen Science: The iPhone App

A new iPhone app aims to make recording and sharing observations of the natural world fast, easy, and could eventually help bring climate models into better focus.

Ken-ichi Ueda and Scott Loarie demonstrated the new iNaturalist iPhone app at Stanford's Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve (Photo: Richard Morgenstein)

At Jasper Ridge, a biological preserve and study area on the Stanford campus, a dozen of the preserve’s docents gathered this week to learn about a new iPhone application that could ultimately help scientists study how ecosystems are adapting to climate change.

The new app, called iNaturalist, is the mobile version of a citizen-science website by the same name.  The iPhone app is still in testing and not yet available, but the website,, is already an active online community of citizen-scientists around the world who use the site to record and share their sightings. Continue reading

Photos From the Future?

From my vantage point this morning at the edge of San Francisco Bay at China Camp State Park in San Rafael, today’s king tide wasn’t all that dramatic.  There was no flooded road, as I had been told there might be, and there was so little wind that the water level just silently crept higher, about a foot higher than usual, with zero fanfare.

Wednesday's king tide along the Embarcadero in San Francisco (Photo: Noah Knowles)

But I snapped photos anyway, for the Bay Area King Tide Photo Initiative, a project aimed at documenting these extreme high tides in order to identify local areas vulnerable to sea level rise.

Reportedly, things at San Francisco’s Embarcadero, however, were a little more dramatic. USGS scientist Noah Knowles was there to take pictures of yesterday’s king tide.

“There was already water splashing over the sides [of the sea wall] yesterday,” he said.  “This was of course on a very calm day, and clearly there was no storm surge, which could have added another half-meter and had the water up on the streets.”

That’s the thing about sea level rise.  The San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC)  advises people to plan for 11-18 inches of sea level rise by mid-century.  That by itself might not cause huge amounts of damage on a normal day, just as today’s extra-high tide didn’t flood the road in China Camp State Park.  What it will do, however, is raise the baseline for what a high tide is, making storm surges more apt to cause destructive flooding.

Just before the king tide at China Camp State Park in San Rafael, CA (Photo: Gretchen Weber)

Knowles said that it’s important to raise awareness about what the potential effects of sea level rise could mean for the Bay Area.

“I think it doesn’t always hit home how low-lying so many area around the Bay already are,” said Knowles.

For photos of the king tides around the Bay Area, visit the Bay Area King Tide Photo Initiative on Flickr, or wait for the next one on February 18th and snap your own.

King Tides Could Preview Sea Level Rise

Photo of Distillery Point near Half Moon Bay, a contribution to the King Tide Photo Initiative. (Photo: jsutton8, Flickr)

This week, seasonal high tides, known as “King Tides” will roll into the Bay Area, providing a preview of what the region might face if sea level rises over the coming decades as predicted.

So the organizers of the Bay Area King Tide Photo Initiative want you to grab your camera and help document the tides.  The San Francisco Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR) has set up a Flickr site for the photos, where participants can upload their “before, during, and after” shots. Continue reading