All Hands on Deck:
Citizen science and climate change?

Image of Eastern TowheeThe sun peeks over the horizon, just enough to toss lemon-colored rays blindingly in my face and illuminate exhales like puffs of smoke. After a moment of holding my breath, I catch the sound again. A twip twip and taw-wee, followed by tussling dry leaves. The bird I was hunting, the Eastern Towhee, emerges from the cane break, scratching sand on his peachy belly and dusting black feathers gray. Others join the sand bath, picking mites off one another and playfully nipping beaks. I mark the checklist on my phone — five more towhees for the day.

Like thousands of others across the US, I participate in a community science monitoring program called Audubon Climate Watch. Climate Watch is a program that enlists citizens to help monitor bird species sensitive to changes in climate across North America.

It offers a host of resources on birdwatching and properly identifying birds, as well as a data collection portal so participants can easily upload information to Audubon’s scientists. Results from the 2016-2018 events have already provided data that indicates birds are disappearing from habitats within the ranges they previously inhabited. This supports the idea that numerous bird species may become locally extinct due to climate change.

Such data collection is called citizen science, or community science. The Oxford English Dictionary defines citizen science as: “the collection and analysis of data relating to the natural world by members of the general public, typically as part of a collaborative project with professional scientists.” In community science, anyone can gather data and, with rising credibility and acceptance of public-based science as legitimate, design studies that seek to answer questions they are curious about.

Birdwatching isn’t the only way you can help gather data about the effects of climate change. Enjoy quiet summer evenings outdoors, but notice glittering flashes over the yard waning each year? Consider counting fireflies for Firefly Watch. From observing and recording occurrences of hail, rain, and snow in your backyard for The Community Collaborative Rain, Hail, and Snow Network to trekking Maine’s mountains and observing how climate change could affect mountain ecology, species, and the landscape, there are many ways to get involved in climate science. You can contribute to our understanding about how climate change is altering our world.

With the rise of community labs like GenSpace in New York City, and the increasingly low costs of monitoring and laboratory equipment, more resources are becoming available to those outside of traditional institutions to conduct research and share information. Western science has set a dividing line between the “scientist” — one who works with an established institution like a university or lab, and who usually holds a degree in their field of study — and the “layperson” or citizen. But arguably, the first forms of science were community-based, as early humans began to explore, categorize, and develop technologies from the resources they had around them. For eons, those people whom we would now consider the public participated in knowledge-making; the term “scientist” did not arise until 1833. Of course, it is vital to learn how to practice science in a structured and ethical way . But this doesn’t mean there is a single “right” way. Observe with wonder, stay curious, and most importantly, don’t be afraid to work with and learn from others.

Cascades Butterfly Project Team

What if we changed how we view what it means to do “science,” blurring the lines between scientists and laypersons, so that each may have an equitable opportunity to contribute to our understanding of the world? Maybe then our collective power would strengthen and diversify our wisdom about the environment and how we mitigate the climate crisis. In “Traditional Ecological Knowledge,” indigenous activist and writer Robin Wall Kimmerer argues, “Science itself, a process of systematic inquiry and knowledge generation about the natural world, is the intellectual gift of all people”.

Let’s use this gift to explore the problems plaguing our planet and the diverse range of solutions required for climate change mitigation. Building a better tomorrow requires all hands on deck.

If you would like a taste of community science, Audubon’s Community Science Programs are a good place to start. Additionally, NASA works with the public to gather data on changing weather and climate. Feeling adventurous and want to create your own study? From YouTube to university websites, there are various online resources to get you started, or you could check out community-based labs to find lab space and a supportive science community near you!

RCC Fellow — Willow Gatewood — Catawba College

RCC Fellow Willow Gatewood is a senior at Catawba College studying Environment and Sustainability, with minors in Creative Writing and GIS. She is also an intern and work-study for the Catawba College Center for the Environment and involved in environmental and climate advocacy groups.