Monitoring the planet’s health is more important than ever, but there are only so many scientists to go around and way too many endangered species and climate fluctuations to monitor. That’s where citizen scientists come in.
Increasingly, researchers are farming out their work to an enormous green army of volunteers around the world who are more than willing to lend their eyes, ears and even their computers to make a difference. Think of it as crowd-sourced science.
Here are some interesting science projects just waiting for regular citizens to pitch in.
Great Sunflower Project
Your dinner table would look sparse without bees and other pollinators to fertilize the plants that produce many of your favorite fruits, veggies, nuts and beverages. Unfortunately, pollinators are on the decline because of pesticide use, habitat loss and other threats; the U.S. alone has lost 50 percent of its managed honey bee colonies in the past decade. If helping our hardworking food partners is your passion, the Great Sunflower Project is for you. Amateur scientists plant "Lemon Queen" sunflowers and count visiting pollinators, particularly bees. If you can’t plant sunflowers, you can monitor pollinator visits to other types of plants, even ones outside your yard. Researchers are using the data to help get a better handle on why pollinators are disappearing and ways to help them thrive.
Whale FM uses volunteers to help classify the songs of killer whales. (Photo: Kim/flickr)
Do you have a good ear for music and a good Internet connection? You may be perfect for a gig with Whale FM. Researchers are hoping to classify the entrancing songs of killer and pilot whales to better understand their complex languages. Participation as a citizen scientist couldn’t be more delightful — and mesmerizing. You simply listen to recordings of these mysterious giants and match them to samples provided on the Whale FM website. Your pattern-finding skills help researchers decipher the individual dialects of various whale family groups, and maybe even the meanings behind their multitude of lyrical and often eerie calls and sounds.
You can also put your listening skills to work evaluating bat calls for Bat Detective. Not only are bats important pollinators, but they also act like canaries in the coal mine, sounding an early alarm for trouble in the natural environment. Unfortunately, these elusive night creatures can also be ridiculously hard to see and study. However, in the acoustic arena they are giants, producing a cacophony of calls that help them hunt, navigate and talk to other bats. Researchers need your help classifying recorded communications online to aid in tracking bat populations. Your contributions may even help halt the alarming decline of several bat species from white-nose syndrome and other perils.
Protecting wildlife is worthy work, but it also requires protecting habitat that supports nature’s creatures. ReefQuest lets you do just that by monitoring imperiled coral reefs (home to a mind-boggling multitude of aquatic species) — without donning expensive deep-sea diving gear. The project was dreamed up by 15-year-old Dylan Vecchione, who was alarmed by the deterioration of Kahekili Reef during trips to the Hawaiian island of Maui. All you need is Internet access and a love of the sea to begin exploring one of the project’s virtual reefs (panoramic underwater views of actual reefs). Your observations help scientists spot changes to reef health and launch rapid-response conservation efforts to save them.
If you happen to love meteorology and history, you can marry both passions at Old Weather. Citizen scientists get to pore over 19th century ship captains’ logs transcribing bygone weather observations and measurements. You can choose from any number of historic vessels, including the USS Yorktown, which participated in the Boxer Rebellion in China in 1900, and the USS Jamestown, used by Union naval forces during the Civil War. Researchers are using this past weather data to help create better climate change models for the future.
A cat named Beluga’s movements are charted on a Cat Tracker map. (Screen capture: Cat Tracker website)
Your cat may be a furry friend at home, but outdoors he or she poses a lethal threat to wildlife everywhere. In the U.S. alone, domestic cats kill billions of birds and mammals each year. Now feline lovers and their felines can protect nature and share some quality do-good time helping investigators at Cat Tracker learn where cats go and what they do when they slip outside. Simply fit your cat (or cats, if you have more than one) with a GPS-equipped harness and let it in and out as usual. After seven days, connect the GPS to your computer, download the data and upload it to the Cat Tracker website. The data should give researchers a better idea of the harm cats inflict on native species. And just in case the underlying message isn’t clear: After you’ve participated, you should probably keep your purr-baby inside. Permanently.
Mobile devices allow us to keep a running photo tally of everything we do and share it with the world. If your photos tend toward nature themes, why not put them in service to a greater good? With Project Noah — a free citizen-science mobile app — amateur nature-loving geeks can document the creepy crawlies, plant life and wild creatures they bump into every day and contribute to a growing species database. Using the app, just snap a photo, pick a category, tag with a description and submit. Your pictures of black-necked grebes, blue-spotted sun orchids, brown bears and bumblebees help scientists draw a sharper map of the natural world. Even better, other research groups and organizations also tap into the vast database, allowing your work to potentially assist several ongoing nature projects.
Don’t have much free time, but still want to help the planet? Why not donate time on your computer to aid scientists in predicting how global climate change will affect us in the next century and beyond? To get the supercomputing power needed, researchers at ClimatePrediction are asking thousands of volunteers to run climate model programs when their computers are on but not being used at max capacity. Climate simulations take anywhere from a few days to several months, and you can watch along as your individual climate scenario evolves. What easier way for you (and your computer) to help solve one of humankind’s biggest environmental hurdles?
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