Citizen scientists aid in environmental data collection
By Lou Fancher
Everyone’s free gift: nature. It can provide joy, education, and possibly, a vocation or hobby.
Bountiful nature offers plants, wildlife and marine animals; inspiring scenery; the power used to run transportation and electric systems; and is regenerative.
Why then, would we throw it away?
Recognizing the perils of extinction, a cadre of citizen scientists are working to preserve and protect this birthright.
Although some of the nearly 100 people who attended the Mt. Diablo Audubon Society’s January meeting expected only to reconnect after the holidays with some of the nonprofit organization’s roughly 400 members, they found themselves receiving a promotion.
“Do you use eBird?” asked guest speaker and science writer Mary Ellen Hannibal. “All of you who use eBird are citizen scientists.”
The online program chronicles real-time observational data from the global birding community that is aggregated and used to understand bird diversity and distribution.
Hannibal’s 2016 book, “Citizen Scientist: Searching for Heroes and Hope in an Age of Extinction,” explores the history of amateur observation by writers, naturalists, environmentalists, activists, philosophers and everyday people.
Backed by research and filled with hands-on, eyes-on accounts of her participation in a modern movement that has people worldwide contributing data to science, Hannibal’s book is also a memoir that pays homage to her father.
While writing the book, her novelist father was rapidly dying of lung cancer. Reading to him the grim, life-and-death short stories of Hemingway at her father’s request, Hannibal was “put in line with nature.”
She realized in ways that were personal the profound ecological interactions: generational links that extinction puts in peril.
Birds, she suggested to the avid bird-watching Audubon members, matter not only to them, but to scientists and society at large. “They provide eco-services: pest control, transfer of resources.”
Calling birds the “weavers of the world” that bring nutrients from one hemisphere to another as they migrate, she said, “They’re darning together the life that we live. We have to do everything that we can to protect them.”
Online technology is playing a major role as citizen scientists protect birds, sea stars, redwood trees, bees, native plants, oceans and overall biodiversity.
Apps like iNaturalist operate like Facebook feeds and allow people to record and upload a picture of what they see in nature onto an online platform. The program began in 2008 as the master’s project of three UC Berkeley students, and was acquired in 2014 by the California Academy of Sciences.
“The statistical impact of the images and data is enormous,” said Hannibal.
Scientists and other experts confirm the identification and location markers for each image. Researchers, policy makers, educators, businesses and essentially, anyone can use the information to track climate change, unusual species proliferation or reduction — or simply to enjoy, appreciate, share and learn more about the world in which we live.
The expanding body of data collected by what Hannibal in her book calls “inveterate observers” who model themselves on the legacies of Darwin, British naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace and citizen scientists, can also solve disputes.
Asked to respond to people who say birds killed by power-generating windmills are “collateral damage,” Hannibal urged people to be flexible and use facts and numbers to find solutions.
Without wind and solar power, people will turn to energy sources that accelerate climate change, which also kills birds. Citizen science data can be used to track where the birds go and when they travel. Windmill placement and hours of operation can then be designed to reduce the impact on wildlife.
“We do need to get to that fine level of calibrating,” she said. “It’s worth doing.”
For many people, entry into being a citizen scientist is less cause-driven. Jean Richmond, 89, has been an Audubon Society member since 1971.
“In 1959, we bought the house in Alamo that I still live in. It had a huge walnut tree that dropped nuts, and attracted songbirds. I just loved how perky they were.”
But she didn’t love the DDT she learned was being used by agricultural companies and how it made the birds’ egg shells thinner.
“It was killing them off. What happens to the birds, happens to us. Like miners who knew to leave when the canary died, if we don’t take care of birds, we won’t know when to leave.”
What can be done?
Richmond said, “You pick your fights, cry about the others, and teach young people to appreciate the outdoors.”