Citizen Scientist: Searching for Heroes and Hope in an Age of Extinction

An excerpt from the book
Citizen Scientist
Citizen Scientist Pexels

Science is built from observations, and for a subject as vast as global climate, there is no way for any one researcher — or team — to gather all the information alone. More and more, researchers are inviting all of us, as citizen scientists, to help collect the data that will truly save the world. Author Mary Ellen Hannibal explores the role of citizen scientists and her own experience joining those ranks in her new book Citizen Scientist: Searching for Heroes and Hope in an Age of Extinction. Below is an excerpt from that book, and you can read more of Hannibal’s perspective and experiences in her Q+A with Nexus Media.

Book Cover
Book Cover The Experiment

“I want to know what the lilacs know!” Toby Ault, a Cornell University climatologist told me. Lilac trees have been around for a very long time. One hundred and twenty thousand years ago, they persisted through a major shift in the climate spectrum. Twenty-four million years ago, “New York was under two miles of ice,” Ault said. “And they were able to cope.”

Ault suspects that since lilac trees have been able to adapt to ice ages and subsequent warming in the past, there’s a good chance they will do okay as today’s human-caused climate change rapidly alters temperature and precipitation patterns. Exactly how they adapt is the mystery he would like to understand. Ault has enlisted an unusually large team of research assistants to help him figure out what’s going on with lilac trees — hundreds of citizen scientists who monitor lilac trees around the country, and document their findings in an online database called Nature’s Notebook.

“Any organism that responds to the transition from winter to spring,” as plants do by leafing out when the weather starts to warm up, “picks up information from the atmosphere that is relevant to them,” Ault said. “From the soils below to the air above, the amount of sunlight, length of days, all of the indicators, all of the qualitative features that define spring come into relevance to a plant coming out of dormancy,” Ault said. Ault collects information from citizens about when their lilac trees start to bloom in the spring, which in general is happening earlier as the climate warms. But plants are not responding to warmth alone.

“They have to make a biological choice,” Ault explains. “If it was simple they would leaf out the same day every year, because the length of days does not change from year to year. We know it’s not random, and we know it’s not like popcorn with species going off; there are large coherent spatial patterns that synchronize events. This large-scale synchrony is a footprint of the atmospheric conditions, the whole climate.” Understanding how lilacs are responding to seasonal change thus provides a window into how all of nature is adapting, or not, to shifting conditions.

Ault is a citizen science enthusiast and enjoins volunteers to plant lilacs and monitor them using the online tool Nature’s Notebook, which is a program sponsored and run by the National Phenology Network (NPN). To truly understand lilac adaptation Ault needs to analyze data over long time scales, and in this he is aided by historic lilac data sets that are part of the NPN. In the late 1950s, citizen scientists joined in making note of when lilacs and honeysuckles came into bloom each year and put that data on postcards in the mail. This historical observation network (now part of NPN) was established to help figure out weather patterns to inform crop management. Eventually a few thousand contributing groups included weather service observers, scientists, technicians at agricultural stations, and garden club members. A professor at Montana State University, Joseph Caprio, started up a western program in 1956 to watch lilacs, and similar projects were later established in the eastern and central states. These projects came and went and were revived by others so that we actually have a pretty good picture of historical lilac phenology between 1956 and today. Ault’s work includes this database and builds on it.

The term phenology is from the Greek, “to show,” and describes the timing of nature’s events — not just blooming, but hibernation, migration, and development and ripening of fruits and vegetables. The impact of climate change on these ecological processes is ground zero for understanding how it will affect agriculture, for example.

Another scientist making important contributions in the field is David Inouye, and while his research also depends on citizen science, in his case he is not working with data from hundreds of people, but from one particularly devoted citizen, Billy Barr. For more than 45 summers Inouye has conducted a field study in flowering phenology at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL) in Crested Butte, Colorado. Although initially focused on bumblebees and hummingbirds, Inouye soon got interested “in the resources,” or the flowers on which the insects and birds depend. When his study began, Inouye had no idea that with time his work would become among the most important in documenting long term ecological change due to shifting weather patterns.

“It turns out that the primary determinant of phenology in the Rockies has to do when the snow melts,” Inouye told me. “When there’s snow on the ground the insects and hibernating animals don’t come out; when it melts, they do.”

Billy Barr lives near RMBL and is described as the lab’s one-time dishwasher, librarian, and business manager and current accountant. Bar has kept a weather journal every single day for more than forty years, noting quality of light, cloud cover, and wind. He has established the world’s most comprehensive database documenting naturally occurring avalanches. And most importantly for Inouye, Billy Barr has for the past four decades measured and documented the depth and weight of snow. Inouye and his colleagues have correlated progressively earlier snowmelt dates with increasingly warm temperatures associated with climate change.

“The snow melts and the flowers are triggered into blooming,” Inouye told me. “But the pollinators haven’t arrived yet; the migratory hummingbirds are on a different schedule. And although the blooming dates are coming earlier, the date of the last hard frost hasn’t changed, so between June 10th and 14th, the hard frost comes and kills the buds and flowers. When the pollinators do arrive, there’s nothing for them to eat.” Whether the insects and birds will be able to adapt remains to be seen.

“Citizen science is a research tool and an apparatus for monitoring,” Ault told me, “but it is also a way to cultivate a scientifically-oriented society. The dialog goes both ways.” Getting at the plasticity, or ability of species to change in response to climate conditions “requires interdisciplinary scientists and huge networks of citizen scientists.”

What we will do with information we have yet to discern also remains to be seen, but having a deeper handle on the processes at work here will undoubtedly influence all kinds of social decision-making around management of nature. “This isn’t only a story about lilacs. There are thousands of other species we can learn the signals for,” Ault said. “That’s why we need twenty million scientists.”

Excerpted from Citizen Scientist: Searching for Heroes and Hope in an Age of Extinction by Mary Ellen Hannibal. Copyright © 2016 Mary Ellen Hannibal. Published with permission of the publisher, The Experiment. Available wherever books are sold.

This story is made available by Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture.