Citizen Science

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Tapping Crowds to Track California’s Weeds

Help map the spread of invasive plants with a smartphone app

Jeremy Miller

Artichoke thistle flower in Wildcat Canyon Regional Park. Citizens with smartphones can help in a statewide weed-mapping initiative.

If you have a sharp eye for invasive plants – and a smartphone – you can help a Bay Area non-profit in its effort to document the distribution and spread of invasive plants across California.

The Berkeley-based California Invasive Plant Council, or Cal-IPC, has found that weeds cost the state at least $82 million annually in terms of increased erosion and flooding, degraded agricultural land and reduced water supplies.

California is hardly alone. A 2005 study by researchers from Cornell University put the nationwide cost of battling invasive weeds at a staggering $120 billion [PDF].

Climate change is making the issue even more complex, says Doug Johnson, Cal-IPC’s executive director, who is trying to better understand how non-native plants may respond and how they may gain advantage over native plants during prolonged bouts of warming or cooling. Continue reading

Citizen Science Project Blooms With Early Spring

Contributions to Nature’s Notebook have surged since spring has sprung

Molly Samuel

Tracking of when flowers bloom--and how the date changes over time--can help provide insight into how they're affected by weather and climate change.

The participative science project known as Nature’s Notebook is closing in on its one-millionth observation. The crowd-sourced program collects data from across the country on the timing of natural events like plants flowering, leaves growing and eggs hatching. The study of those seasonal life stages, called phenology, gives scientists insight into how they’re connected to each other, and how they’re affected by climate and weather.

Jake Weltzin, the executive director of the USA National Phenology Network (USA-NPN), which manages Nature’s Notebook, said he thinks that spring arriving ahead of schedule across much of the country has sparked people’s interest.

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Life After Wildfire: Studying How Plants Bounce Back

After a fire at a California state park, volunteers used satellite imagery to study the recovery

Henry Coe Park in Santa Clara County is big: 87,000 acres of former ranch land, dotted with oak trees, meadows that burst with wildflowers each spring, and vast stretches of chaparral. Given that Coe is nestled near Silicon Valley, it makes sense that the retirees who volunteer here bring a certain technical bent to their appreciation of the place.

Case in point: the Lick Fire of September 2007 (Craig Miller reported on it for The California Report). Named the Lick Fire after it was first spotted from the nearby Lick Observatory, the wildfire burned 47,760 acres in the Mt. Hamilton Range by the time it was contained, eight days later.

Since then, citizen scientists who volunteer for the park have been paying close attention to see how the burned land bounces back. In particular: Bob Patrie, a former project manager in Silicon Valley, and Winslow Briggs, Director Emeritus at Carnegie Institution of Washington’s Department of Plant Biology. Together, they’ve pored over satellite imagery to document the impact of the fire on various plant communities in Coe Park.

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Six Citizen Science Projects that Help Keep Tabs on Climate Impacts

Count some birds, shoot a wave, set out a rain gauge — the sky’s the limit

Molly Samuel

An iPhone can be a field guide, a tool for recording observations and a way to share data.

Today is the first day of the annual Great Backyard Bird Count, when people all over North America tally the birds they see and record their results on the GBBC website. It’s a simple citizen science project to try. Even if you don’t know your birds, you can print out a list of what you’re likely to see in your area to help figure out which bird you’re looking at. And as the four-day project progresses, you can watch results come in from all over the continent.

The Bird Count is important to scientists, too. The information you collect helps answer questions about how bird populations are doing and how migrating birds are responding to the weather or climate change

But the Great Backyard Bird Count is far from the only citizen science project worth trying. While some science is done by people in crisp white lab coats, with specialized tools, a lot of it isn’t. Scientists don’t just work in labs, they don’t just use beakers and Bunsen burners, and most of the time they’re not wearing lab coats.

Also: you don’t have to be a scientist to do science.

Continue reading

Take Me to the River (Without Leaving My Desk)

A new project to visually map American waterways will start with California’s Sacramento

Craig Miller

The Sacramento River is a lifeline for California.

By the end of the summer, you may be able to float down the Sacramento River from your computer, thanks to the Riverview Project. It’s an initiative to document and map rivers, using similar tools to the ones Google used to create Street View, and with similar results: the ability to drop into a place on a map, click to move down the street (or float down the river), and take a look around.

“There’s reams of data (about rivers),” Jared Criscuolo, one of the founders of the Riverview Project told me. “But the thing we’ve noticed we’re missing is a visual piece.”

Continue reading

Snapping Snakes for Science — with your iPhone

An innovative citizen science project gains momentum, sprouts new branches

Tad Arensmeier/Flickr

Tad Arensmeier photographed this Yellow-Blotched Palm-Pitviper for iNaturalist.

The organizers of a new effort to catalog the world’s reptiles want to enlist you and your iPhone for their cause. The Global Reptile Bioblitz launched last month and aims to collect amateur observations of every species of reptile on Earth — all 9,413 of them. The project is the sister effort of the Global Amphibian Bioblitz which launched earlier this summer and, thanks to submissions from citizen scientists around the world, has already collected photos of more than 700 of the nearly 7,000 known amphibian species on the planet.

The observations are all logged at iNaturalist.org, an online citizen science community with more than 2,000 members who’ve cumulatively logged more than 30,000 field observations of species ranging from redwoods to coyotes.Observations can be uploaded to the site directly, or through an iPhone app, also called iNaturalist, which was launched earlier this year. Since we first reported on it back in January, the app has been downloaded more than 3,000 times, according to its developer Ken-ichi Ueda. Continue reading

Saving Redwoods: There’s an App for That

Redwoods: There's an app for that. (Photo: Michael Limm)

We’re not the only ones who think iNaturalist is pretty cool. Save the Redwoods does, too.

The San Francisco-based conservation organization has teamed up with the biodiversity-tracking social networking site to create an iPhone app exclusively for monitoring redwood and giant sequoia forests. It’s called Redwood Watch. It uses the same technology as the iNaturalist iPhone app, aggregating data on a special Redwoods page within iNaturalist.org.

“We hope that this will help us have a better idea of where redwoods are, and then we can use that data to understand what kinds of conditions they can tolerate,” said Emily Limm, director of science and planning for Save the Redwoods. Continue reading

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

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

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