Climate change can seem like a problem too big for any one person to bother tackling. But that doesn’t mean that people are just sitting on the sidelines waiting for the inevitable. There are kids who have sued the U.S. government. More than a million students and other people worldwide took to the streets in a one-day strike on behalf of the climate. And scientists, of course, do research to help inform the public about what’s happening to the world around us.
Many of those scientists could use some help. And sometimes they don’t need scientific experts. Average citizens can supply what they need. Experts refer to these helpers as citizen scientists.
“There [are] really great volunteer programs,” says Janneke Hille Ris Lambers. She’s an ecologist at the University of Washington in Seattle. And she runs one of these many projects. Called MeadoWatch, it focuses on a phenomenon called phenology (Feh-NOLL-uh-gee). This term refers to the fact that the timing of many life events, such as when flowers bloom, is seasonal. Scientists want to know if that timing is changing as the planet warms.
But research into other, non-climate-related areas of conservation also can help, says Hille Ris Lambers. That’s because climate change often isn’t the only type of stress that organisms have to deal with. There are other factors, ranging from the illegal wildlife trade to overfishing and pollution. If scientists can figure out how to eliminate those other factors, then species should have a better chance of being able to deal with climate change.
Scistarter and Zooniverse are two websites that list citizen-science projects in which you can take part. An internet search for “citizen science” and your city, state or country can also bring up local projects that may be seeking volunteers. Here’s a sampling of what such projects might involve:
This project, out of the University of Washington, is looking at how climate change is affecting wildflowers on Mount Rainier. Volunteers collect data along hiking trails about when wildflowers bud, flower, fruit and produce seed. The project is also collecting photos of wildflowers from across Mount Rainier National Park.
For four days every February, volunteers around the world count birds in 15-minute sprints. These observations can be made anywhere, including your own backyard. The counts provide scientists snapshots of data on where birds are found, and how many there are. Since the count has been going on for more than 20 years, researchers can now answer questions about how these patterns may be changing with time. That includes how diseases and climate change may be affecting these populations.
People have collected weather data for a very long time. And many of these early weather records still exist. But for scientists to use them, data from handwritten, paper records need to be digitized — entered into a computer. This is usually not something that a computer can do well on its own. With Weather Rescue, British researchers are using online volunteers to transcribe daily measurements that were taken in Europe starting in the 1860s. That was before temperatures began to rise because of global warming. These data will provide a useful baseline for future research.
Residents of Minnesota can sign up to be a volunteer water monitor for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Volunteers are assigned a lake or stream. Twice a month during the summer, they take measurements of water clarity. Those data let the government see whether water clarity has been changing over time as well as assess the health of those waterways.
Gretta Pecl is a marine ecologist in Australia at the University of Tasmania in Hobart. She studies where marine species are moving in response to climate change. She set up a program called Redmap. It asks people to report “uncommon” marine species that they’ve seen in Australian waters. “We wanted to have an early indication of what species were moving where they live,” she explains. But the program also helps when she is talking to the public about climate change. “I think it's a more powerful conversation, if you can start off from the point of view of what other people are bringing to the table.”
citizen science Scientific research in which the public — people of all ages and abilities — participate. The data that these citizen “scientists” collect helps to advance research. Letting the public participate means that scientists can get data from many more people and places than would be available if they were working alone.
climate The weather conditions that typically exist in one area, in general, or over a long period.
climate change Long-term, significant change in the climate of Earth. It can happen naturally or in response to human activities, including the burning of fossil fuels and clearing of forests.
conservation The act of preserving or protecting something. The focus of this work can range from art objects to endangered species and other aspects of the natural environment.
data Facts and/or statistics collected together for analysis but not necessarily organized in a way that gives them meaning. For digital information (the type stored by computers), those data typically are numbers stored in a binary code, portrayed as strings of zeros and ones.
ecology A branch of biology that deals with the relations of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings. A scientist who works in this field is called an ecologist.
factor Something that plays a role in a particular condition or event; a contributor.
fruit A seed-containing reproductive organ in a plant.
global warming The gradual increase in the overall temperature of Earth’s atmosphere due to the greenhouse effect. This effect is caused by increased levels of carbon dioxide, chlorofluorocarbons and other gases in the air, many of them released by human activity.
internet An electronic communications network. It allows computers anywhere in the world to link into other networks to find information, download files and share data (including pictures).
marine Having to do with the ocean world or environment.
monitor To test, sample or watch something, especially on a regular or ongoing basis.
online (n.) On the internet. (adj.) A term for what can be found or accessed on the internet.
organism Any living thing, from elephants and plants to bacteria and other types of single-celled life.
phenology The study of periodic and seasonal phenomena in wildlife (such as when birds migrate or flowers bloom). Some of these studies focus on how one type of event (such as bloom dates) line up with another phenomenon, such as the normal arrival in a location of a pollinator for those flowers.
phenomenon Something that is surprising or unusual.
population (in biology) A group of individuals from the same species that lives in the same area.
resident Some member of a community of organisms that lives in a particular place. (Antonym: visitor)
species A group of similar organisms capable of producing offspring that can survive and reproduce.
stress (in biology) A factor — such as unusual temperatures, movements, moisture or pollution — that affects the health of a species or ecosystem.
Tasmania A major, mountainous island of Australia, south of the eastern part of the mainland across the Bass Strait. Until 1856, Tasmania had been known as Van Diemen's Land. Home to nearly 500,000 people, it’s capital city is Hobart. The name also refers to a state in Australia that comprises this island and several smaller ones.
trade The buying, selling or swapping of goods or services — indeed, of anything that has value.
weather Conditions in the atmosphere at a localized place and a particular time. It is usually described in terms of particular features, such as air pressure, humidity, moisture, any precipitation (rain, snow or ice), temperature and wind speed. Weather constitutes the actual conditions that occur at any time and place. It’s different from climate, which is a description of the conditions that tend to occur in some general region during a particular month or season.