7 Outdoor Citizen Science Projects to Join This Summer
By Tiffany Means
Summer and fall are great seasons to enjoy the outdoors. But if you're already spending extra time outside because of the COVID-19 pandemic, you may be out of ideas on how to make fresh-air activities feel special. Here are a few suggestions to keep both adults and children entertained and educated in the months ahead, many of which can be done from the comfort of one's home or backyard.
Open to U.S. and Canada residents
CoCoRaHS invites those with a penchant for precipitation to join its grassroots observation network. By observing, recording, and reporting daily accumulations of rain, snow, and hail in their own backyards, volunteers help fill in "holes" in the official network of precipitation gage data. Over time, these local observations will serve as a record of local climate. And climatologists will use this data to help put extreme precipitation events into historical context and to identify precipitation patterns.
Open to U.S. and Canada residents
The Firefly Watch project seeks to answer the question of whether fireflies are disappearing from our summer evenings. Firefly enthusiasts interested in participating are asked to devote a minimum of 10 minutes weekly to observing firefly activity in their backyards or at other grassy locations. Sightings (or lack thereof) are then reported in an online database, along with basic weather conditions. In time, researchers hope the data gathered may help highlight the extent to which climate change has harmed fireflies, whether through loss of habitat or earlier peak appearance.
Open to residents worldwide
The Penguin Watch project aims to better understand the environmental threats responsible for the decline in penguin colonies. Volunteers will view short videos and image stills of Adélie, king, and other penguins captured by cameras around the Southern Ocean and Antarctic Peninsula, then count the number of visible adult penguins, chicks, and eggs. In summer 2020, the project is transitioning from monitoring penguin breeding patterns to monitoring foraging behavior.
Open to U.S. residents
A nonprofit conservation and research program based at the University of Kansas, Monarch Watch depends on monarch butterfly and entomology enthusiasts to help investigate the decade-long decline in monarch butterfly numbers. By tracking counts of adult monarch butterflies and the timing of their north-south migrations, volunteers help researchers better predict the fall migration and overwintering population size – two characteristics that are influenced by weather and climate.
Open to residents and tourists of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts
Barrier island beachgoers from Maine to Mexico can help monitor American oystercatcher populations by reporting "banded" birds to the American Oystercatcher Working Group. Upon spotting a flock of oystercatchers during the breeding, nesting, or migration seasons, volunteers are asked to note and report (or better yet, photograph) the color, code, and positioning of bracelets on the shorebirds' legs. Re-sighting assists scientists in researching environmental threats, such as sea-level rise, on the migration habits and feeding or nesting resources of these orange-beaked shorebirds, which are a species of "special concern" in some states.
Open to New Hampshire and Maine residents and tourists
The Appalachian Mountain Club encourages hikers to help scientists study climate change and its effects on the flowering and fruiting times of Appalachian flora through the Mountain Watch program. The program, which partners with the iNaturalist app, asks Appalachian Trail-goers to use their mobile devices to photograph plant life found in the White Mountain National Forest. Those images are automatically geo-tagged with date and location coordinates, which then assist researchers in learning more about the characteristics of forest and alpine vegetation.
Eyes of the Reef Hawai'i
Open to Hawai'i residents and tourists
The Eyes of the Reef is a statewide reporting network that encourages Hawai'ian Island ocean enthusiasts, fishers, and community members to assist in protecting Hawai'i's local reefs. Participants are asked to identify and report unhealthy reefs so that coral disease, coral bleaching, and invasive species spread events can be monitored by scientists as early as possible. Seventy to 90% of coral reefs will be killed off by warming oceans, ocean acidification, and pollution in the next 20 years, according to a recent study by a researcher at the University of Hawai'i at Mānoa. Coral reefs may be eliminated worldwide by the year 2100.
Reposted with permission from Yale Climate Connections.
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A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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