9:57am

Mon April 22, 2013
Citizen Scientists

Aspen Citizens Recruited to Track Changes in Environment

Last month the Obama Administration laid out a plan to help plants and animals deal with the impacts of climate change. Already, polar bears are losing sea ice and waterfowl are flying south weeks later than decades before. The plan lays out strategies on how to help animals survive these changes.

Credit Marci Krivonen

In Aspen, a group of citizen scientists hope to do the same thing. They’re getting trained on how to recognize and record changes to the environment. The Aspen Center for Environmental Studies is behind the effort. The group hopes to make it easier to track changes.

Inside the cozy lobby of ACES’ Hallam Lake office in Aspen, Jim Kravitz flips through a worn journal. Inside entries are scribbled dating back ten years.

"First bear of the season, here’s one here from 2009: bear spotted far side of lake. Then just two days ago, bear at Hallam Lake at 8:30am. We’re kind of taking a look at the patterns," Kravitz says.

Kravitz is the Director of Naturalist Programs for the Center. He says everyone from ACES staff to visitors create entries.

"This is citizen science. It’s very, very simple, but it’s contributing to something that’s being concentrated to one area," he says.

He’s working on modernizing the data. Instead of flipping through pages of the journal, he’s uploading the entries onto an online calendar, so it’s easier to compare changes from year to year.

This kind of citizen science, observing changes in the environment and writing it down, has been done for centuries. But, now an organized effort is underway to carry the information collected in the field to scientists in laboratories.

That’s what’s happening here at ACES. A group of people are gathered around microscopes for a training on how to become a citizen scientist. Kravitz instructs them on what plants to watch for and how to share their observations with a national audience.

Long-time Aspen resident Tita McCarty is at the training. She’s always watched changes in her backyard, but she’s never written them down.

"It’s just been more of a gut feeling, I come from an agricultural family and I’ve always heard things like, the animals have heavier coats this year, or the birds are coming earlier or leaving later. This is a way to record it scientifically," she says.

After the training, McCarty will begin uploading her observations to a national database called Project Budburst. It’s a network of people across the U.S. who monitor plants as the seasons change.

Sandra Henderson is the Director of Citizen Science for the group behind Project Budburst, the Boulder-based National Ecological Observatory Network. She says scientists are using information on the site.

"The data being collected by citizen scientists is data that would otherwise not be collected, scientists aren’t going into our backyards to measure rainfall, scientists aren’t going into our schoolyards to see when buds bursts on the lilacs."

The information on the site is similar to what’s collected in garden journals and notebooks like the one in ACES’ lobby. Only it’s nearly impossible for scientists to get their hands on such data. The online database makes it easy for scientists to learn more about how plant species respond to changes in climate.

"We’re going to be able to see how plants respond to changes in their environment, precipitation and temperature, which are certainly phenomena that climate scientists are interested in looking at. The plants have a story to tell and we’re hoping to help give them a voice," Henderson says.

The information could carry local implications. Jim Kravitz with ACES says a changing climate in the Roaring Fork Valley might mean changes to agriculture.

"We rely on pollinators to do a lot of the legwork. If the pollinators’ timings off with our crops, that’s very important. The farmers have the best records of when these things happen, so mismatches in timing could have big implications," he says.

Citizen science isn’t just observations of the natural world. There are tons of programs across the country that collect data from lay people on topics from space and extraterrestrial life to microbes in buildings. One effort called the Road Kill Project even asks citizen scientists to record observations about animals along the road, to pin point road kill hot spots.

The information the citizen scientists in Aspen collect will also go into a Forest Health Index. It tracks changes in the forests of the Roaring Fork Valley.