Archive for the ‘Climate & Weather’ Category

Citizen participation in science at the Museum of Science in Boston

By December 11th, 2014 at 1:16 pm | Comment

This is a guest post from David Sittenfeld, Manager, Forums at the Museum of Science, Boston.


Rica, a Museum summer youth intern, facilitates a discussion about urban air quality issues. Photo by David Rabkin, Museum of Science.

Rica, a Museum summer youth intern, facilitates a discussion about urban air quality issues. Photo by David Rabkin, Museum of Science.

At the Museum of Science in Boston, we’ve been exploring three flavors of citizen science over the last half-decade or so. We started with fireflies and have added participatory efforts around urban environmental health assessment and participatory policy formulation.  We’re excited about the way that citizen science has transformed the landscape for science and are looking forward to what’s next! Read the rest of this entry »

The Citizen Science Funding Resource Guide

By August 25th, 2014 at 7:08 pm | Comment

Looking for ways to fund citizen science research? Check out the Citizen Science Funding Resource Guide!

242px-Environmental_Protection_Agency_logo.svgJessica Clemente, an environmental science graduate thought she would be doing work outside of her community once she got her degree. But she is an asthmatic, and when she found out there was an asthma study taking place in the area of her home in South Bronx she became involved and eventually took the lead. “Living day-to-day in an area where all I saw was high traffic volumes, poor air quality and adding more waste to our community got me enraged,” she says in an EPA video interview. Her anger prompted action, and she looked at the tools to empower herself and her community—education and advocacy.

In many cases, there is a connection between socioeconomic status and air quality. Some call it environmental justice—why should a factory spew tons of filth into the same air that a poor, young family across the road breathes? Amanda Kaufman, the Environmental Health Fellow in the Air Climate and Energy Program Office at the EPA says, “We are currently working with a community in Newark, New Jersey that has faced environmental justice issues in the past and still faces many to this day.  We hope to collaborate with the community action group to establish a community-led air monitoring project.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Waiting for a butterfly to flutter by with the Los Angeles Butterfly Survey

By July 20th, 2014 at 11:01 am | Comment

Live in Los Angeles county? Photograph butterflies and moths, and help scientists study climate change.

Interested in more moth and butterfly citizen science projects?  We’ve got you covered!


Hyalophora cecropia [1]

Once I read a story about a butterfly in the subway, and today, I saw one…” [2]

In the heat of summer monsoons, butterflies accompany the paddling turtles in the lake outside my window… butterfly? Wait a minute; I remember dragonflies, not butterflies, from childhood. Nightly news reports every evening that our fragile blue marble is undergoing significant changes. Could butterflies and moths help scientists understand how living organisms adapt to climate change?

More than 174,000 species of butterflies and moths, the Lepidoptera, or scaly-winged insects, have been cataloged, making them some of the most successful insects to flutter across our planet. Vital to local ecosystems, butterflies and moths are important food sources and pollinators, only differing in their coloration (bold colors vs. drab monochrome) and diurnal/nocturnal range. Yet, only 236 species of butterfly have been observed in Los Angeles County.

Citizen scientists monitoring monarchs on milkweek in Los Angeles. [3]

Citizen scientists monitoring monarchs on milkweek in Los Angeles. [3]

The Los Angeles Butterfly Survey, a partnership between the all-volunteer Butterflies and Moths of North America (BAMONA) and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, is working with citizen scientists to count and photographically catalogue the butterflies, and moths, found between the urban skyscrapers of southern California.

Becoming a butterfly, or moth, hunter has never been easier. Citizen scientists simply photograph, noting the date, time, and location, of their winged sighting. The photo and observations are then uploaded to the BAMONA website, where experts identify/verify the species before adding the find to their database. The data is used to develop a visual database and life history page for each species including stunning, user-submitted, photographs and maps reflecting recent sightings.

Kelly Lotts, co-founder of BAMONA, notes, “It is very easy for kids to grab cameras and to take photographs of species found where they live or at their school… Kids really enjoy being able to point to their dot on the map, to their actual photograph.”

Hyalophora cecropia, normally found east of the Rocky Mountains, spotted in California.[4]

Hyalophora cecropia, normally found east of the Rocky Mountains, spotted in California.[4]

Since its launch in 2011, the Los Angeles Butterfly Survey has become an invaluable tool encouraging city dwellers to become scientists for the day. Over 628,000 butterfly and moth sightings have been recorded across all of North America; 1320 for southern California. Lotts goes on to explain, “We get a lot of data requests from scientists looking at butterflies as indicators of climate change… in 2011 and 2012, in California, there was a sighting of Hyalophora cecropia each year. This is very unusual as the Cecropia is found in the east of the Rocky Mountains.”

Citizen scientists benefit from their involvement as well. At the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, they are mapping local species in order to inform planting in the pollinator garden. New projects are sprouting up including the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project. According to Lila Higgins, Manager of Citizen Science for the museum, “Citizen scientist are already getting so much out of their experience. They are thinking like scientists – making predictions about what they are going to find in the coming weeks. Talk about science in action.”

Why not grab a camera and enjoy the summer sun while waiting for a butterfly to flutter by?

References and Resources:

[1] Image courtesy Tony Maro (BAMONA submission).
[2] Kathleen Kelly, You’ve Got Mail
[3] Image courtesy Wendy Caldwell (Museum of Natural History, Los Angeles).
[4] Data courtesy BAMONA website.

Dr Melinda T. Hough is a freelance science advocate and communicator dedicated to sharing the inspiring stories of life science and helping the general public explore their world. She holds a PhD from the University of Edinburgh for research into how antibiotics kill bacteria, was a policy fellow at the National Academy of Sciences, and is a published photographer. Naturally curious, it is hard to tear Melinda away from science.  Not content to stay in one place for very long, she might be found exploring, often behind the lens of her Nikon D80, plotting her next epic adventure, or training for the next half marathon.

Learn how climate change affects plant life with AMC Mountain Watch

By May 19th, 2014 at 2:47 pm | Comment 1

Track phenology events in Appalachian mountains and contribute to climate change research with Mountain Watch!

Want more spring citizen science? We’ve got you covered through April showers and May flowers.

There is nothing more rewarding than taking in the view from above tree-line. A challenging hike always seems like a distant memory after gazing upon the landscape below, especially if it’s the White Mountains of NH. Now, the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) is calling on visitors of these Northeastern peaks to help them observe plant life through the Mountain Watch program. This citizen science initiative aims to investigate how the life cycles of alpine plants are affected by climate change.


View from the Franconia Ridge Trail, one of the alpine sites on the Mountain Watch list.

To do this, Mountain Watch asks participants to record plant phenology, which is the study of how plant life cycle events, such as flowering or producing fruit, are affected by changes in environmental conditions, including temperature and precipitation. Plant life cycles are very sensitive to small variations, so even subtle changes across seasons can be observed. For example, a dry summer might cause the leaves on trees to change color earlier in the fall. When recorded over many years, these phenology records can start to uncover long term trends in the climate and help scientists to model the effects of climate change in a certain region.

Diapensia, one of the sensitive alpine flowers being monitored.

Since the AMC is based in the Northeastern portion of the Appalachian Mountains, the focus of Mountain Watch is on alpine plants that are found exclusively at high elevations in the north. The program is targeting these alpine species specifically because they have adapted to survive only in harsh, low temperature conditions and cannot thrive in warmer climates. As such, they are especially sensitive to climate change. Georgia Murray, a scientist a the AMC, describes that the Mountain Watch observations help to make up “really rich mountain data sets” that, paired with temperature observations from the Mt. Washington observatory, help to understand how climate change has affected the environment in the Northeast.

This year, the Mountain Watch program is joining an exciting new collaboration called A.T. Seasons (A.T. for Appalachian Trail), which is working to develop sites for citizen scientists to collect plant phenology data all along the Appalachian Trail. Mountain Watch joined this project to get more people involved, and as Georgia explains, to “utilize the A.T. as a north-south corridor in understanding phenology in climate change.” The goal of A.T. Seasons is to monitor the same type of plants along the whole Appalachian Trail to better understand the interplay of climate and phenology across geographical regions, as well as in relation to climate change. As alpine species only grow on the northern section of the A.T., they will not be included in this portion of the program; however, Georgia notes that Mountain Watch will still maintain the “alpine focus that is unique to the AMC and our region in the northeast” in addition to the A.T. Seasons plant list.

The incorporation of A.T. Seasons into the Mountain Watch program allows more citizen scientists to be involved, as the new initiative provides options for different levels of commitment – there is an Android app for easily making one-time measurements and more in-depth training courses for people who want to make long-term observations. The alpine flower portion of the Mountain Watch program does require more “dedicated volunteers,” as Georgia says, who can commit to regularly visiting the remote mountain sites, but there are many educational tools on the website for those who just want to learn more.

So grab those hiking boots and get outdoors! Spring and summer are the best times to observe plant phenology, and the sweeping views of the White Mountains await.

Top image: Sean O’Brien via Flickr

Bottom image: AMC Mountain Watch 

Emily Lewis is a PhD candidate in chemistry at Tufts University, where she analyzes industrially important catalysts on the nanoscale. She received her BS and MS degrees from Northeastern University, and her thesis work examined fuel cell catalysts under real operating conditions. She loves learning about energy and the environment, exploring science communication, and investigating the intersection of these topics with the policy world. When she’s not writing or in the lab, you’ll probably spot Emily at the summit of one of the White Mountains in NH. Follow her: @lewisbase,


First Leaf, First Bud, First Fruit: Project Budburst

By May 9th, 2014 at 9:53 pm | Comment

Record plant observations and learn how changes in climate and habitat affect a plant’s lifecycle with Project Budburst.

Track the phenology of plants and animals with these citizen science projects.

Participants record observations for Project BudBurst.

Participants record observations for Project BudBurst. Photo courtesy of Dennis Ward, of Project BudBurst.

Gardeners worldwide have their favorite sayings about when to plant, when to reap, how much rain is going to fall, or how dry it will be.  For example, according to one proverb, “If the oak’s before the ash, then you’ll only get a splash; but if the ash precedes the oak, then you may expect a soak.”  Typically tested by time, and cast over generations by people who till the land, they identify the prime time to sow or harvest. According to an English folk-rhyme, “After a famine in the stall, (bad hay crop) comes a famine in the hall, (bad corn crop).”  Endemic to regions around the world, the words often identify both the geographic locale and the season. Gardeners have not only learned the sign for a wet spring or a dry summer, but they also know that there is a connection between the first leaf, the first flower, the first fruit and the corresponding season. Scientists call the study of this timing phenology, and it is the primary concern of a public participation project called Project BudBurst (official site).

Various methods of reporting for Project BudBurst. Photo courtesy of Project BudBurst

Various methods of reporting for Project BudBurst. Photo courtesy of Project BudBurst.

Project BudBurst  is a national field campaign designed to engage the public in the collection of important ecological data about plant phenology. The project makes the data freely available so that others can make discoveries from it, and publish and write about what they find. Rather than looking for the next “big” thing, the team focuses their efforts on developing and building new and better tools, and opportunities for people across the spectrum, from educators and scientists to students and the public, to explore and engage with the data so that they can make their own discoveries. According to Sarah Newman, a citizen science coordinator with Project BudBurst, “Project BudBurst participants have been sharing their observations of plants with us since 2007. Most climate change studies need about 30 years of data to really start saying something concrete about the effects of climate change, so we have many years of data collection ahead of us yet. That being said, we are starting to see trends for some plants that show they are blooming earlier than was historically true.” One example reported in an American Scientist article records how a group of researchers modeled the timing of cherry-blossom peak bloom for trees in the Washington, DC region under various scenarios of climate change. Project Budburst data has also been used in a number of regional historical studies. Take for instance a 2012 study, in which data collected in the Chicago region was compared with records accumulated by botanists Floyd Swink and Gerry Wilhelm. “Swink and Wilhelm collected phenology observations from the mid-1950s to the early 1990s. Of the 15 local species for which we had good contemporary and historical data,” said the authors, “13 had an earlier first flower in one or more years between 2007 and 2012 than was ever observed by Swink and Wilhelm.” Operating within these timescales, the data begins to reveal the effects of climate change on plants.

Learning about phenology. Photo courtesy of Carlye Calvin, University Center for Atmospheric Research, Project BudBurst.

Learning about phenology. Photo courtesy of Carlye Calvin, University Center for Atmospheric Research, Project BudBurst.

An important element of Project BudBurst is science education. Dr. Sandra Henderson, the project director, enjoys working on Project BudBurst because it allows her to combine her background in biogeography and experience in developing climate change educational programs. When questioned about data verification—a common bugbear for volunteer-collected data, she said, “Traditionally, we had an annual ‘clean up’ of the data base by plant scientists associated with Project BudBurst. These subject matter experts helped in making decisions of what data would be shared each year. As our program has grown, this has proven to be somewhat inefficient. For future campaigns, we will be exploring online approaches to data verification.” Newman is also excited about Project BudBurst’s education initiative, which will facilitate data collection. “Just this week we announced our first cohort of Certified Instructors who will be able to offer presentations and workshops about Project BudBurst in their communities and local areas. Because our program is entirely online and we have a small staff, we are thrilled that these instructors will be able to create personal connections and offer in-person opportunities to engage with Project BudBurst across the country.” (You can learn more about these instructors here) A folk saying used in the Midwest goes like this, “When maples flower and woodchucks dig up the hillsides, ducks are scouting for nesting sites, and onion sets can be tucked into the garden soil.” As Project Budburst collects data to inform climate change studies, what happens to these sayings as phenology keeps pace? Do they migrate with the warming spring? Will this become a northeastern quote, or will it just fade into the mists of time?


Chung, U., L. Mack, J. I. Yun, and S.-H. Kim. 2011. Predicting the timing of cherry blossoms in Washington, DC and mid-Atlantic states in response to climate change.
PLoS ONE 6: e27439. doi:10.1371/journal. pone.0027439

Images: Project BudBurst

Ian Vorster has a MS in Environmental Communications and most recently served as director of communications at the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts. Prior to that he worked in the health communications field. Ian has served as a designer, writer, photographer, editor and project leader in the field of science, and now works freelance in a blend of these roles. You can see more of Ian’s work at