If you’ve spent any time in the environmental arena of late, you’ve heard the term “citizen science”. Citizen science, scientific research conducted in whole or part with the assistance of nonprofessional members of the public, is the buzzword of today’s underfunded, overtaxed universities, conservation organizations and institutes. In my more cynical and hardened moments, I think citizen science can get us in a cycle of undervaluing our research and conservation efforts, because agencies and institutions get in a mode of constantly wanting to save money by outsourcing to willing volunteers, sometimes at a cost to the quality of their research if the program is not well explained and coordinated. However, citizen science has become vastly important, not only because conservation and research is drastically underfunded in most countries and likely to remain so for the forseeable future, but also because we are asking larger questions with more data that needs more hands and eyes and brains to tackle those questions.
There are countless ways to get involved in citizen science initiatives, from activities as passive as allowing a small part of your computer to be used while its resting for searching for extraterrestrial life or letting it work on public health issues. At the other end of the spectrum, if you have the time and money, you can fly halfway around the world to participate in exotic and exciting volunteer opportunities that put your boots on the ground helping scientists with pressing conservation issues. Scientific American has put together an incredible list of opportunities to engage in citizen science that run the gamut from passive to active; seriously, check this site out and you will have options for filling your downtime for the rest of your life.
Somewhere in the middle, there is a ton of stuff you can do from your comfy chair, and some of it is even helpful to understanding our changing climate. One of the very coolest options in this department I’ve encountered is a project called “old weather”. Old Weather engages people like you and me in transcribing thousands of ships’ logs from the mid 19th century that describe the weather they encountered on their transoceanic journeys. By looking deeper and more specifically into our climatological past and its variability, we can use this information to better understand our future. Plus, if you have ANY interest at all in maritime history, it is like the coolest thing in the world to realize that you are actually reviewing the real logs of ancient ships and their experiences as they crossed the ocean into unknown adventures! I mean really, the Pirates of the Caribbean video game has nothing on this, people. I will say that the interface for participating in the Old Weather program is a bit cumbersome- I still havent quite figured out all the tricks of how to backup, or fix errors in my entries. But its totally worth checking out.
Yet another super cool citizen science project I’ve been trying out is Plankton Portal. This is a project that engages citizen scientists in a crowd-sourcing effort to help identify and classify oceanic plankton from research cruises. Plankton are an incredibly important study subject for climate science and for marine science in general because they form the base of the ocean’s food chains; they are instrumental in the global carbon cycle as major players in carbon transfer from incorporation of CO2 into the food chain and into the depths of the ocean when plankton dies and decays.
Understanding where, when, and what kind of plankton is present at varying ocean depths is key to our understanding of trophic and biogeochemical cycling, and is critically important to modeling and quantifying how climate change might effect and change these distributions. And plankton are just fantastically amazingly awesomely beautiful and complex and cool as you can see in this great short TED ed video. Plankton portal involves very simple tasks of measuring individual plankton in an image and identifying them using a series of guiding images. Your answers are crowd-checked, by matching them for consistency with other citizen scientist guesses and spot-checking by professionals, to build a vast library of information about the distribution, diversity and abundance of plankton that can answer a wide range of questions we can ask about plankton ecology and energy and chemical cycling, all issues integral to our questions about how our changing climate will impact our oceans.
These and several other incredibly cool citizen science projects can be access through the Zooniverse project page where by creating yourself an account you can get access to a wide range of these fun opportunities in climate, space, history, wildlife conservation and many other arenas of study.
So if you find yourself wondering what you might do to relax for an hour, instead of watching yet another episode of Project Runway or Wheeler Dealers (you can tell what my spouse and I waste our time on, ahem), why not fire up the Zooniverse Portal and spend a few minutes helping science and our understanding of ocean ecology and climate? I give you my permission to test your own theories about whether your identification skills work better with a glass of wine in hand; yet another reason citizen science has its advantages over the poor shlubs actually stuck on that research vessel in the middle of the ocean :-).