Archive for the ‘Nature & Outdoors’ Category
This was originally published on Huffington Post, by George Zaidan.
SciStarter asked Craig Newmark (of Craigslist fame) why he likes squirrels. He told us that it all started with a simple desire to feed birds. But the suet palaces he was using to dispense the raw, fat-based bird food were constantly getting hacked by squirrels. He tried everything; he even upgraded to “squirrel-resistant” models, to no avail.
It was then that Newmark really began to appreciate the rascally rodents. “Squirrels are smart, tough and athletic, real survivors, and that’s very impressive,” he says. “They’re a candidate to replace humanity if we don’t work things out.”
Newmark, who regularly tweets about squirrels and is a religious observer of National Squirrel Appreciation Day (Jan. 21), has his house wired with “squirrel cams” and was even able to capture — on video — a female entering his house to explore.
But most squirrel observation is low-tech, involving a pair of binoculars and a notebook. These observations eventually work their way into peer-reviewed science.
SciStarter.com, which I like to think of as the Craigslist of science, has a list of squirrel-related citizen science projects here. You can participate for free, and finding squirrels (especially the eastern grey) is about as easy as falling over. They dominate this area, and they’re not shy!
Our citizen science projects are not limited to the East Coast, or even the U.S. There’s the Black Squirrel Project in the UK and the Western Gray Squirrel Project out in the state of Washington.
If you think you’re sly enough to outsmart squirrels, we have a limited-time competition just for you! In partnership with instructables and Discover Magazine, SciStarter is looking for safe and effective ways to keep squirrels and other ravenous vegetarians and omnivores from eating sunflowers. Why? Because sunflowers play a crucial role in citizen science bee observation projects. No sunflowers, no bees. And that would… bee bad. But hurry! Not only is January 21 National Squirrel Day, it’s also the last day you can submit an entry to the Citizen Science Contest!
Some species of ground squirrels hibernate, but tree squirrels don’t. The eastern grey and other tree dwellers ride out the winter in tree hollows and holes, but you can still see them as fall turns to winter. So sign up for a squirrel project here at SciStarter, grab your coat and head out to the nearest deciduous forest, rooftop or really just about anywhere, and start observing!
Or just hang a birdfeeder outside your window.
With Hurricane Sandy looming large, weather’s the nation’s top news story. In case you’re at home sitting out the storm like the bulk of the SciStarter team, we’ve got you covered (no pun intended) with plenty of weather-related citizen science opportunities to help researchers and advance science.
Bonus: here’s a weather-appropriate, musical supplement to your citizen science project browsing below, an oldie-but-goodie from classic BBC.
While Sandy is currently moving across the east coast, it presents an opportunity for citizen scientists to help researchers at the University of Utah. Scientists studying the isotopic composition of rainwater and snow are enlisting the help of volunteers to develop an unprecedented spatial and temporal dataset documenting the isotopic composition of rainwater (and snow) associated with this major storm system. You can study the storm while it’s happening (with safety in mind first, of course!) by collecting rain and/or snow samples and logging information in a spreadsheet that you can download on the WaterIsotopes.org website!
This citizen science project allows you to help scientists recover Arctic and worldwide weather observations made by United States’ ships since the mid-19th century. Browse through online archival data of ship logs from decades past, then help transcribe and digitize them so that researchers can access them more easily. These transcriptions will contribute to climate model projections and will improve our knowledge of past environmental conditions. Historians will use your work to track past ship movements and tell the stories of the people on board. This nascent nautical venture is only 4% complete, so there’s plenty of work to be done!
The gorgeous, interactive website includes helpful tutorials on the transcription process and invites you to linger, browse, and imagine the history behind the documents you will be analyzing. Pick a vessel that suits your fancy, and dive into the vast sea of archives that come from it.
Beautiful videos like the one below illustrate the anthropological fingerprint and relevance in all the data:
Still craving more weather citizen science projects? Our SciStarter Project Finder is a library of hundreds of citizen science projects! Here are more of our favorite weather-related projects also featured on our home page today.
SkyWarn: During hazardous weather, SKYWARN volunteers report what is happening at their location. Reports arrive at the forecaster’s office via the telephone, fax, Internet, and amateur radio. The reports are combined with radar and satellite data to determine what the storms will do next.
CoCoRaHS: Rain, Hail, Snow Network: Each time a rain, hail, or snow storm occurs, volunteers take measurements of precipitation from their registered locations (reports of ‘zero’ precipitation are encouraged too!). The reports are submitted to the website and are immediately available for viewing. The National Weather Service, meteorologists, hydrologists, emergency managers, city utilities, insurance adjusters, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, engineers, mosquito control, ranchers and farmers, outdoor and recreation interests, teachers, students, and neighbors in the community use the data.
SatCam: SatCam lets you capture observations of sky and ground conditions with a smart phone app at the same time that an Earth observation satellite is overhead. Observe the earth’s weather from above.
RainLog: Live in Arizona? All of this week’s excitement about the weather doesn’t just have to be for east coasters. Join RainLog’s network of over 1,000 volunteers that use backyard rain gauges to monitor precipitation across Arizona and in neighboring states. Data collected through this network will be used for a variety of applications, from watershed management activities to drought planning at local, county, and state levels.
SnowTweets: How much snow is on the ground where you are? Cryosphere researchers at the University of Waterloo want to know! The Snowtweets Project provides a way for people interested in snow measurements to quickly broadcast their own snow depth measurements to the web.
Students’ Cloud Observations Online (S’COOL): a citizen science project in which volunteers make and report cloud observations from sites of their choosing, such as a field trip, vacation, or even a backyard. The project aims to collect data on cloud type, height, cover, and related conditions from all over the world. Observations are sent to NASA for comparison to similar information obtained from satellite.
Citizen Weather Observer Program: Are you a ham? The Citizen Weather Observer Program is a group of ham radio operators and other private citizens around the country who have volunteered the use of their weather data for education, research, and use by interested parties. There are currently over 8,000 registered members worldwide and over 500 different user organizations. Their weather data are used by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and distributed to user organizations.
Though it may be that these citizen science projects require more rain than shine for full effect, we’re sure that they’re likely to help brighten your day or, at the least, provide plenty of distractions from the gloomy news reports.
We couldn’t have asked for a better citizen science project to start off October, a month often associated with Halloween and all things spooky.
Introducing Bat Detective, a project that enlists citizen scientists to screen sound recordings of bats to classify their distinct calls. Bats are nocturnal, making them very difficult to spot with the naked eye, so a growing number of bat surveys are being done acoustically instead. Bat calls “leak” information into the environment each night through echolocation, which bats use to sonically navigate, socialize, and locate prey in the dark.
Citizen scientists from all over the world have already recorded about 3,000 hours of acoustic surveys. Bat Detective has split the surveys in 4-second snapshots, so there are actually millions of files to be sorted. With only a few scientists, it would be an incredibly tedious, perhaps even impossible task. However, with the help of citizen scientists like you, the job will get done much more quickly!
These classifications will be used to create a new algorithm to help researchers easily extract information from their sound recordings and more closely monitor threatened bat populations. Bats are an integral part of their local ecosystems, but one in every five species of bat will face extinction over the next 50 years.
“Bats carry out lots of ‘ecosystem services’ like pollination and seed dispersal,” said Kate Jones, Professor of Ecology and Biodiversity at University College London and Zoological Society of London. “They also eat masses of insects. Losing bats means that all those services are degraded,” added Jones, whose Bat Detective project was made possible through Zooniverse , a popular online citizen science platform.
“The idea of Bat Detective really caught the imagination of the Zooniverse team, and when we heard the bat calls we were sold,” said Chris Lintott, director of Zooniverse. “The rapid sequence of calls that make up a feeding call, and which means the bat has found its prey, is once heard and never forgotten.”
Bats are also incredibly vulnerable to climate change, since their hibernation and migration patterns depend largely on weather patterns, so the success or failure of their local populations often serve as a early warning sign of the failing health of the local ecosystem as a whole. Need we say more?
Be sure to sign up for this sonically exciting and scintillating citizen science scheme! While you’re at it, check out our other bat-related citizen science projects in our Project Finder. You can help the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources with acoustic bat monitoring or identify Indian flying fox bats with the South Asian Bat Monitoring Program.
Coming soon: a collection of Halloween-themed citizen science projects. Keep your eyes (and ears) peeled!
When you wake up in the morning and start your daily routine—take a shower, brush your teeth, cook breakfast—do you ever stop to wonder where all that water you’re using comes from? It’s availability (or lack thereof) is certainly not a common worry in the United States, where as of 2005 (the latest assessment of national water use conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey) about 86 percent of the population relies on public water supplies for household use. Turn a faucet handle, and water, the world’s most precious, life-giving resource, is simply there, ready to cool us or clean us or quench us of our thirst, wherever we need it, whenever we want it.
But for how much longer? Climate change, pollution and unprecedented global demand are already threatening the world’s water supply according to a United Nations World Water Development Report released earlier this year. (SciStarter partnered with Discover Magazine, the National Science Foundation and NBC Learn to explore the Future of Water as part of our Changing Planet series.)
In response to these challenges, two international nonprofit organizations, the Water Environment Federation (WEF) and the International Water Association (IWA), partnered up to launch a challenge of their own.
Today, September 18, is World Water Monitoring Day, a key component of the broader World Water Monitoring Challenge that runs from March 22 to December 31. Thousands of people from around the world will use low cost monitoring kits to test their local water bodies for the basic indicators of watershed health–temperature, acidity, turbidity, and dissolved oxygen—and enter their results into a shared online database. It’s not too late to get involved. The program’s administrators hope that participants will not only learn which rivers, lakes, streams and reservoirs supply their communities but also become aware of the unique combination of environmental challenges each one faces.
“These are issues the next generation will have to cope with,” said Lorien Walsh of the Water Environment Federation. “The water we drink today is the same water people have been drinking for thousands of years. It is a finite resource, and we can’t use it if it’s not clean.”
In 2011, over 300,000 people from nearly 80 countries participated in the World Water Monitoring Challenge. Taking clean water for granted might be common in the United States, but it is a luxury people can ill afford in the developing world, where three million people, most of them women and children, die from water-borne illnesses like cholera every year.
“Kids in Kansas can see the data they collected and compare it to the data collected by kids in the Congo,” said Walsh. “There’s a stark difference.”
It happens every year, and you’re right: it’s just not fair. After nearly three months of uninterrupted fun, gone are the barbeques, ball games and pool parties that dominated the summer schedule just as Labor Day signals the sudden arrival of the shorter, colder, and more structured days of the school year. But before you cast yourself into the depths of the autumn blues, rest assured that we are working hard to make this year’s science lessons a little different and—especially if you like nature and the outdoors—a little more fun!
Below is our third annual “Back-to-School” list of projects recommended to get teachers and students thinking about how to incorporate citizen science in the classroom. Check out our previous installments (2011, 2010) for additional ideas.
Participate in Project BudBurst: The National Ecological Observatory Network invites student citizen scientists to submit their observations of the phenophases (leafing, flowering, fruit ripening) of local grasses, shrubs and trees. This data will be compiled and compared to historical figures to help scientists learn more about the responsiveness of specific plant species to climate change. Their teachers, meanwhile, might consider enrolling in the BudBurst Academy, an online course for K-12 educators providing all the necessary information for implementing Project Budburst and engaging in citizen science in your classroom.
Plan your own BioBlitz: Even (or perhaps especially) if you missed the 2012 BioBlitz co-hosted by the National Park Service and the National Geographic Society, consider planning your own in your own neighborhood or schoolyard. These biodiversity snapshots provide valuable data for analysis of local species and their habitats.
Count some bugs: Don’t let those math skills go to waste! SciStarter features several opportunities to count stuff, particularly insects and other creepy crawlies. Just pick your favorite: dragonflies, butterflies, bumble bees, spiders, ants, and worms.
Heads up: So bugs aren’t you’re thing. No problem. How about some astronomy? You can grow tomatoes to assess the feasibility of long-term space travel; search for the compound that stores solar power and thus solves the world’s energy crisis; craft a story about your favorite astronomical bodies; or help astronomers search for and identify new planets and stars!
Be a mapmaker: The U.S. Geological Survey is considering the restoration of The National Map Corps, its volunteer mapping initiative, launching a pilot program in the state of Colorado. Anyone with an Internet connection can update the national map, adding the important man-made structures throughout the community such as hospitals, fire stations, and schools. The USGS could expand the program into other areas in the future if its initial efforts are successful. Come on Colorado!
The Community Collaborative Rain, Hall and Snow Network (CoCoRaHS) collects precipitation data from volunteers across the country for inclusion in an interactive map used by the National Weather Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (among others) to monitor local weather trends. SKYWARN is a national network of volunteer weather spotters trained by local National Weather Service Forecast Office to recognize and report the signs of severe storms; these first-hand accounts of the storm’s impact are as valuable to forecasters as hard data as they send out public statements, warnings, and advisories to concerned citizens. And for kids, the National Science Foundation funded Tracking Climate in Your Backyard, to engage youth in the collection of meaningful data.
Also, here are some important resources that help you stay safe by answering some important questions about how Hurricane Isaac is impacting your community. How fast is the nearest stream rising? How can I monitor the storm surge? How fast is the wind blowing? What’s the situation offshore? What does Hurricane Isaac look like? Show it to me from space!
Attention all backyard explorers and rosebush whackers: this is the opportunity you’ve been waiting for. Your days of leading patient parents on perilous neighborhood expeditions are over. Put down that “machete.” Stop mushing the dog. Grab your merit badges. Adventure is calling!
This Friday, August 24, the National Park Service and the National Geographic Society will host their annual BioBlitz species count at Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. Hundreds of students and thousands of local citizens will join about 200 scientists, naturalists, and explorers from around the country to collect and analyze wildlife data, transforming the forest into a massive outdoor classroom alive with curiosity and discovery.
“I am always moved by the commitment of the National Parks Service to protecting our country’s ecological diversity and sharing it with the general public,” said Daniel Edelson, Vice President for Education at National Geographic. “The BioBlitzes are…explicit strategies for preparing young people to care for their world.”
National Geographic has been “inspiring people to care about the planet” through its magazine since 1888, but it is relatively new to the business of “preparing” them to do so. With the rapid proliferation of digital media, the society saw an opportunity to provide teachers and students with the resources to learn (curricula, films, games) and the tools to take action through a more robust educational initiative, thus engaging with their audience in ways never thought possible. Can’t make it to Colorado to catch bugs, spot birds, and count elk on Friday? You can take part in the action via their Google Hangout starting at 3 PM (EST), or even plan your own BioBlitz by following their instructions.
“It’s exciting to see that other people are embracing the concept and using the resources we developed to conduct their own biodiversity research in their own parks in their own communities,” said Sean O’Connor, a BioBlitz project manager.
This year’s BioBlitz, the sixth in a series of ten leading up to the National Park Service’s Centennial in 2016, comes amidst the strain of another round of federal budget cuts and continued lack of funding for the program. As the National Park Service prepares to face the challenges ahead—political, economic, environmental, or otherwise—National Geographic aims to show its next generation of stewards why its 397 parks encompassing ver 84 million acres of land are worth preserving.
“We believe [the most important lesson] we can teach young people is how interconnected our world is,” said Edelson. “Even in our most pristine National Parks, you can’t escape the impact of human activities on the natural environment. A BioBlitz is a chance for young people to see those impacts and learn about the connections between their own actions and the health of ecosystems.”
You might not realize it, but it’s always out there. Planning. Growing. Waiting for the perfect time to strike. You never quite know when it will happen. Maybe July. Maybe August. But you know it’s coming, and you can’t escape it. In an awesome display of speed and power, it bursts from an otherwise calm summer sea and takes over. Terrifying though it is, you just can’t look away.
I’m talking, of course, about the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, the seven-day marathon of programming celebrating the world’s most feared—and revered—predator. Now, in the midst of it’s 25th year of sidelining would-be beach-goers, Shark Week enjoys ratings (drawing in 3.3 million viewers in its first hour in 2011) previously reserved for major television events and pop culture phenomena like the Super Bowl or American Idol.
Scientists, meanwhile, are hard at work studying these creatures, and they need your help! I know you’re thinking, and don’t worry. We saw Jaws too. But did you know that several of the over 400 species of sharks, including the iconic Great White, are endangered or vulnerable due to commercial fishing and shark finning?
Here’s a few citizen science projects from around the world enlisting the help of divers, fishermen and boaters to contribute data for scientific study or conservation purposes. Happy Shark Week!
Shark Trust invites everyone, especially recreational divers, to report their shark sightings and send in photos for inclusion in their global database used by scientists and conservationists to track and manage sustainable shark populations around the world. Shark Trust ensures the security of its data and safeguards local populations by listing only the region of the sighting, never the exact location, lest it be misused by hunters or fishermen.
According to Michael Bear of California Diver Magazine, divers in the waters off San Diego suddenly began reporting sevengill sightings in 2009. “So little is known about them and their [migration] habits,” said Bear, “[so I wanted to find out why] they began appearing and congregating in a specific spot.” Through his partnership with the Shark Observation Network, the Sevengill Shark Sightings data will contribute to a global database available to researchers and the general public. Bear also founded Citizen Scientists of the Ocean on Facebook, whose relatively modest (but active) membership includes “Her Deepness,” oceanographer and explorer Dr. Sylvia Earle. Like it!
Spot a fin and email it in! The Basking Shark Project from the New England Coastal Wildlife Alliance invites fisherman, whale watchers, and boaters to report their sightings of the basking shark, one of the world’s largest fish at 39 feet long, second in size to only the whale shark. Their triangular dorsal fin often breaches the surface when they feed—a chilling image from an all-but-harmless beast. They’re filter feeders! Your data will help scientists better understand their local population size and distribution patterns.
If you’re lucky enough to spot or swim alongside one of these rare, majestic (and endangered) creatures, snap a photo and send it to ECOCEAN’s Whale Shark Photo-identification Library. Using the same algorithm that NASA astronomers use to analyze star patterns and thus compare photos of the night sky to guide telescopes, scientists can identify and track individual whale sharks by the unique spot patterns on their backs. According to Wired, the approach is not limited to whale sharks, having been adapted for tracking polar bears by their whisker patterns and humpback whales by the shape of their fins, and could revolutionize wildlife tagging and tracking as we know it.
Why Sharks Matter
If you find yourself in Charleston, SC, you can help David Shiffman from Southern Fried Science and the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources capture, tag, and release their resident shark species. At least you’ll be on a boat. Anyone can volunteer, but beware of seasickness!
If you see a landslide, a swirling mass of unmoored dirt and rock and debris tumbling downhill at speeds of several tens of meters per second, run away as fast as you can. If it doesn’t bring you down, grab your computer and report it to the U.S. Geological Survey’s Landslide Hazards Program through their recently launched Did You See It? website.
The USGS will use your information to build a crowd sourced, national landslide database, a valuable resource for both scientists and citizens. The data will not only help researchers identify the areas of the country where landslides are most prevalent and better understand the conditions that most often lead to their occurrence, but also serve as a way for people to learn about risks to their persons or property.
“In the United States, more people have a chance of experiencing a landslide than any other natural disaster,” said Peter Lyttle, coordinator of the Landslide Hazards Program and a 36-year veteran of the USGS. “It’s kind of a stealth hazard.”
Thousands of landslides occur every year, claiming upwards of 25 lives and resulting in billions of dollars in damages and lost productivity, but unlike, say, earthquakes, there are relatively few scientists (perhaps 50, according to Lyttle) tracking and studying them in the United States. Lyttle hopes that Did You See It?, an homage to the enormously successful Did You Feel It? earthquake survey, will provide researchers with the vast amount of data his small staff could never collect on their own.
“The science is still in its very early days,” said Lyttle. “We’re still using a very broad brush.”
Knowing the exact location and time of a landslide will help the USGS pinpoint the areas at risk when other hazards–heavy rainfall in the East, sweeping wildfires in the West–threaten to undermine the underground. The need for awareness grows with us, as our population swells and communities demand development into vulnerable hillside areas.
“We’re putting ourselves at risk by expanding into these areas,” said Lyttle. “It takes a lot of manpower to make predictions and give early warning. We’re not capable of doing that for the whole country, so we want people to educate themselves if they’re in danger and learn what they can do to protect their homes.”
By Nick Fordes
Recently, SciStarter added a project called Petridish, where citizens have a chance to contribute to innovative research in a unique way. Petridish is set up like Kickstarter and several other funding platforms. Users can browse a number of current projects, learn about the research objectives, and then donate at various levels. The really unique part of Petridish is that a donation not only helps the research project become viable, but based on the donation amount, various rewards are given. Petridish is less than a year old, but has already funded numerous research projects and involved citizens in big time research.
I recently had a chance to talk with Co-Founder Matt Salzberg about Petridish. His enthusiasm for the project and what the team hope to accomplish was reflected in our conversation.
Matt started his career as a venture capitalist where his investment interests were in the mobile and web-based sectors. While working around the world for various businesses, Matt saw huge potential in the Internet as a tool to gain leverage in certain markets. He was struck most by the Internet’s power to pool collective action and develop interest and eventually funds for a variety of projects. Building on his interest in science, Matt took the exact same model he had used in his investment career to develop Petridish.
According to Matt, the key to Petridish is that the projects included are as innovative and important as they are interesting. Some of his current favorites include an astronomy project to discover exomoons that has actually instead found a new planet. Other projects include studying cooperation among vampire bats, discovering how zebra’s got their stripes, and saving sharks with satellites. There is truly something for everyone’s interest on Petridish.
The other aspect of Petridish that has gone over well with contributors is the system of unique rewards for each project. Matt claims that this is what involves citizens further into the actual science of the research projects they are supporting and can develop meaningful relationships between researchers and citizens. Matt explained that the rewards are set up by the researcher and have included a cast replica of a fossil from a dig site, an analysis of your dog’s DNA, an even an analysis of the DNA in your own hair. Other more common rewards include new species naming rights, credit in academic journals, and invitations to join field expeditions. While it is not Petridish’s role to facilitate potential relationships between contributors and researchers, Matt hopes that they will provide the platform for this to happen.
Matt explained that while Petridish is not a traditional citizen science project with actual hands-on science, Petridish allows citizens to be part of big projects that they normally wouldn’t be able to on their own. It’s a different kind of connection, and citizens can be part of some really important discoveries.
Petridish seems to find a way for citizens to involve themselves in the important and necessary funding side of science. With an amazing variety of projects to choose from and a unique rewards system, Petridish is sure to continue to grow. Personally, I can’t wait to tell my friends there really is a moon named after my cat!