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Citizen Science: Climatology for Everyone

Posted on 16 July 2011 by Dawei

With recent posts addressing personal action in the fight to combat global warming, I thought it would be interesting to dedicate a post to ways in which the average citizen can help global warming by directly contributing to our scientific understanding of it. That is, becoming a ‘citizen scientist’.

Citizen science projects date back hundreds of years, with many of the first projects involving citizens keeping track of wildlife populations. The Audubon Christmas Bird Count is perhaps the most famous in the United States and dates back to 1900. With help from the internet, and a growing recognition of the value that citizens are capable of contributing, citizen science projects have been rapidly growing.

The range of subjects that are covered by citizen science projects is vast. Here are just a few of them, which directly relate to climate change:

Computational projects

The majority of activities that we use our computers for actually require less than 1% of our computer’s available processing power. Using one of today's new computers to browse the internet is like using a forklift to hang a potted plant. Why not get the most out of that expensive hardware under the hood, by putting it to work to help the planet?

– Using the popular BOINC grid computing software, allows you to harness unused processing power to run global climate models on your home computer.  Several scientific papers have already been published based on results from the project.
The Clean Energy Project – Part of IBM’s World Community Grid, and also running on the BOINC platform, it uses the powerful Q-Chem® quantum chemistry software to explore new molecular structures for use in potential low-cost “organic” solar panels.

Hydrogen@home –  A new project, similar to the Clean Energy Project, but seeks new ways to create and store hydrogen as part of a clean fuel economy.

The projects listed above may be considered 'passive' citizen science, in that they don't require any real effort to carry out. Once you download and get the software running to your preferences, you can essentially ‘set it and forget it’. The software is fully customizable with respect to how much of your processor/memory you want to allocate to the projects, when the computations run, and which projects you would like to contribute to (if climate science isn't your greatest passion, there are several other projects out there ranging from the search for aliens to discovering new protein folding techniques.)

Active Participation

For those who are motivated to do a bit more, there are many 'active' participation projects out there. Some of these can be quite involved, but typically don't require any minimum time commitment--work as often as you like and as hard as you like.  

Old Weather – Read old navy logbooks and digitize their historic weather information, in order to gain a better understanding of past weather and climate patterns and enhance the accuracy of modern day predictions. A talent for reading handwriting is required.
Data rescue at home – Similar to Old Weather but with a wider range of sources, involves digitizing handwritten atmospheric conditions for computational analysis. Currently working on German radiosonde data from WWII.
CoCoRaHS (USA) —Measuring precipitation in “your backyard”, with the goal of creating an ongoing, ultra-high resolution data set of precipitation events, which will contribute to scientific understanding of weather and climate patterns.

Opal Climate Survey (England) – Requests that citizens observe and report several climate factors, such as aircraft contrails and wind speed. Related surveys such as air quality and biodiversity are also featured.

Students’ Cloud Observations On-Line – A NASA program, geared towards kids but with the very important purpose of cross-checking satellite cloud measurements. Students visually classify clouds by altitude, type, cover percentage, and opacity. (USA) – Seeks volunteers to photographically document the status of official temperature stations throughout the United States.  

ClimateWatch (Australia) – Track populations of an insect, animal or plant species through time within a certain region, to better understand how the biosphere reacts to climate change and other long term trends.  

ClimateWatch is similar in nature to the earliest type of citizen science project discussed above, that of keeping track of species number and behavior in their natural environment (formally known as phenology). While most do not officially take tracking climate change to be their primary goal, there is no doubt that this data will be helpful in tracking how the biosphere is reacting in response to regional or global climate forcings. Knowing how the natural world will react to a rapid climate shift lists among the biggest and most important uncertainties still plaguing climate predictions, and lack of data is a limiting factor. Imagine how much more informed our policy actions could be if we knew exactly how populations and behaviors of all of the key species on earth were trending.

There are hundreds of similar projects involving tracking the natural world; it is almost certain you will be able to find one involving whichever plant, animal, or insect species you may especially hold dear. Many of these projects can be found at the excellent database for citizen science projects There are even iPhone apps to let you participate on the go.

So why not start giving scientists a hand? Virtually anyone, including kids, can get involved in these projects and know they are making a real difference. Many feature some kind of participation-based points system for fun and to encourage some friendly competition. And they can also be a great way to meet people—whether your passion lies in developing clean energy to save the world, or simply the intricacies of the swallowtail’s mating cycle, there is no shortage of passionate citizens out there working hard to improve our scientific understanding of the natural world.

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Comments 1 to 23:

  1. I'd like to note that there's one aspect of citizen science that this post ignores: independently researching some issue and writing a peer-reviewed paper about it. There is a continuous (but not very numerous) stream of scientific papers published by laypeople in different branches of science, astronomy being one of the prime examples of that. There is a common misunderstanding that one needs to be "official scientist" before you are allowed to publish in scientific journals, but this is not true at least for most of the journals. One only needs to make the research, write a paper about it, and submit it to a journal for peer-review.
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  2. I don't know why you included, which is run in conjunction with WUWT. Although classifying the quality of surface stations is itself a worthwhile task, they classifying team a have a demontrable bias. Taking one example, in a recent classification of Australian sites, they classified the Oodnadatta Airport site as "not rural". While a site located within Oodnadatta (pop 277) itself may have effected temperature readings due to the presence of a (singular) lawn and, no doubt, some air-conditioners, Oodnadatta Airport differs from the surrounding scrub solely in that some spinifex has been bulldozed to make three runways. The notion that it (or Ceduna Airport, or half a dozen other examples) should be classified as not rural is an absurdity. Consequently I consider their classification of most US stations as rating 3 or lower as being an expression of their bias rather than an objective analysis, and participation in their effort as a furtherance of pseudo-science.
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  3. There are a number of UK yearly events. The RSPB - Big Garden Birdwatch: A new one is the Big Butterfly Count:
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  4. An excellent climate project that I participate in with my college classes is Project Budburst, which uses Plant Phenology as climate indicators. Citizens can provide much greater data density than researchers alone.
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  5. Hve to agree with Tom about the surfacestations project. It's hard to imagine a project that has a greater initial conceptual bias toward hoped-for results. And their results have already been shown to have no significant effect on the global temperature record by Menne et al.
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  6. My participation is a website, exploring issues in sustainability, energy efficiency and climate change. I have a B.Sc. (Mathematics & Physics) from Canada's Royal Military College, have served in our RCAF and am now retired after a 45-year career with a focus on emergency response and public safety. I kept up my interest on science throughout my career and am now trying to act as an ambassador between scientists, their studies with the lay public who have been misled by the "Merchants of Doubt", primarily by mainstream media commentary. This site is one of my favorite citations. Alan Burke Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
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  7. Yes, the surface stations project doesn't really belong. Real citizen science projects (such as the christmas bird count) are unbiased attempts to gather data, because, as mspelto says, citizens can provide much greater data density than researchers alone. Typically such projects make use of citizen expertise in an area, for instance count organizers and team leaders in the christmas bird count are typically expert amateur birders. The surface stations project set out to "prove" an ideologically-driven belief that the global temperature record has been manipulated, and was organized and the "data" (photos) presented with that in mind. There was no effort to train or recruit volunteers to classify stations other than via photographs. It turns out that slicing and dicing the dataset via the surface station project's site categorization doesn't affect the trend, but the person who started the project continues to insist that they've proven the data's been manipulated to show warming that doesn't exist. It's citizen pseudo-science, and listing it alongside real citizen science efforts is an insult to the latter.
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  8. I understand that people are surprised that I included to the list. The fact is that it does fit the definition of citizen climate science. Although some people contribute to the project with a bias in mind, it doesn't mean it isn't still a useful project, whose efforts the NCDC has already expressed appreciation for. To remove from the list what is surely the most popular citizen climate science project in the US simply because we disagree with the views of its participants would be a pretty biased action in my opinion.
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  9. Climate Progress has a recent post about citizen science as well: "Tapping Social Media To Muster a Vast Green Army".
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  10. Tom Curtis #2, A couple of thoughts: I think it might be useful to get some unbiased observers in the mix. Though, how to handle different ratings for the same site might be a good puzzle for Watts et al. IDK, maybe they've figured out a solution for that already. It would be ironic (and somewhat humorous to me) if the bias toward down-grading perfectly good stations (probably encouraged by a desire to find fault with the surface station record) had anything to do with Watts' failure to find a difference between poorly- and well-cited stations. If you throw a number of good stations in with the bad, it waters down whatever signal might be there because of siting quality. Dawei #8, I have to agree with that.
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  11. I think you guys are being a bit hard on the Surface Stations project. The data it has gathered has generated two published peer-reviewed papers (Menne et al & Watts et al) which both confirmed that station siting does not affect the US temperature anomaly record and has resulted in the projects founder convincingly rebutting himself.
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  12. "To remove from the list what is surely the most popular citizen climate science project in the US" ... You weren't being asked to remove the christmas bird count ... surface stations may be the most publicized among a certain segment of society, but I've never seen it mentioned in, say, mainstream dailies or tv news. The CBC involves tens of thousands of volunteers every year and has been going on for over a century, and has provided invaluable data on changes in bird distribution in north america that's been used by a very large number of scientists in their work. Yes, the NCDC has said that the classification effort was useful, but that doesn't make it science. The usefulness was an unintended consequence of what was, in essence, a pseudo-scientific effort to prove that the surface station instrumental record is fraudulent.
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  13. SteveBrown: Menne et al was published in essence to defend science against the pseudo-scientific attack on the surface station temperature record. People had already sliced and diced the data using a variety of classification criteria and has shown that temperature reconstructions were robust despite acknowledged weaknesses in the dataset. Menne et al simply confirmed what was already known, using photographs to slice and dice the dataset would have no statistically significant effect. Waste of time for scientists who already have plenty of real work to do to move science forward rather than fend off attacks from innumerates like Anthony Watts. For those of us who've been involved in real citizen science efforts, in fields like ornithology and astronomy which have a rich tradition of citizen science contributions, the inclusion of the surface stations project as an example of "citizen science" is insulting. Now, let's flip the coin and ask why the Clear Climate Code project isn't on the list? NASA GISS intends to adopt their rewrite of GISTEMP. Now *that's* a useful contribution.
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  14. I agree that had the potential to be a good example of citizen science. Sadly it is not science when you set out with an agenda, preconceived ideas and bias as was clearly the case for Watts and his "team". Watch this this and read this, and then compare that with the results from the paper by Fall et al. (2011) that was ultimately published in a peer-reviewed journal and with the results of Menne et al. (2010). Yet to this day, there are people at WUWT and in the blogosphere who question the veracity of the global surface temperature record. Mission accomplished for Mr. Watts.
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  15. Albatross @14, thanks for the link to the video. The back story on its publication is also interesting. My criticism of the inclusion of has received some criticism, and some support. Some of the criticism is, however, based on a false premise. Specifically it is assumed that the involvement of unbiased reporters will lift the standard of classification in the scheme. That is not so. Volunteers are asked to photograph sites, to take some basic measurements. They are not asked to rate the stations, which is done by the organizing team. Hence participation by non-biased observers is unlikely to improve the results of the project.
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  16. Tom, Fair points. But who was on the "organizing team"? Did it include Watts and/or Pielke? Also, how do we know the photos fairly reflect the station's position/exposure etc? The old adage that photos do not lie no longer applies I'm afraid. I think it would be naive to assume that people participating in the project were wholly unbiased. The entire premise of the project was to try and "destroy" the reputation of the surface temperature record. Again, in principle it was a good idea. In principle.
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  17. Dawai @8, the NCDC may well have expressed appreciation for the project, but that does not in any way counter its flaws. To give an idea of the futility of the program, consider Oconto Wisconsen, whose surface station receives a rating of 4 by the project. Apparently that rating is based on a single google earth arial photo: As you can see, they have carefully measured the distance from the surface station to the nearest heat source as 7.69 meters, and according to the USHCN, any station within 10 meters of a heat source deserves a rating of 4, so no problems. Right? Except that if you look closely the spot they measure to is just another patch of lawn, and is itself at least one meter from any different surface, and several meters from the nearby building (the local heat source). Looking at the photo, one corner of the building might by withing 10 meters of the surface station, or it might not. It's hard to tell because of the obscuring vegetation. There are two key points here. The information available is simply not adequate to make the determination between rating 4 and rating 3. That they went ahead and classified it as rating 4 indicates bias (as if that was not already well established by the Oodnadatta example). Second, the classification as a rating 4 is a poor predictor of station performance. In order for the surface stations program to be genuinely useful, both of those points would have to be false. In fact, I believe the primary purpose of is simple salesmanship. They several times indicate that what they are doing as volunteers should have been done by the scientists despite the fact that: a) The scientists had been doing things to correct for station quality for seven years before A Watts got involved; and b) The surfacestations style classification is very time consuming, and scientists are not that numerous nor have that much free time. But in addition to selling false messages about poor temperature records and negligent scientists, follows the oldest sales technique going - get the product into the customers hands. Once you do you change the psychology from one of do I want to get this thing, to do I want to give it up. In this case, by enlisting volunteers they sell the message that their classification and their conclusions from that classification are actually the product of their army of volunteers. That message is in fact false, but it certainly contributes to their success in PR. So, I wouldn't touch with a barge pole. Of course, it is your post and your call as to what you recommend.
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    [DB] I have been to Oconto, Wisconsin, many times.  Let me assure you that there is nothing in the town remotely urban.  The open fields surrounding the station will do nothing to keep the winds sweeping down out of Canada from dispersing any heat from the nearby building.

  18. Albatross, according to Fall et al 2011, final decision on classification rested with Anthony Watts and Evan Jones. Beyond that, ratings where made by teams of two people drawn from an unspecified pool, although presumably closely associated with Watts.
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  19. "Yet to this day, there are people at WUWT and in the blogosphere who question the veracity of the global surface temperature record. Mission accomplished for Mr. Watts." Given that Watts has insinuated that even in the face of the publication of et al + Watts (not "Watts et al" as previously stated by the defenders of the project) that he believes the data, further analyzed, will still show insurmountable problems with the instrumental records ... Is this any surprise ???
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  20. Thanks for the comment, DB. I just checked my first link, and it takes you to the town rather than the surface station (for which I had searched). To find the surface station, follow route 22 west out of the town. The surface station is at Radio Woco, just south of the road before you come to the cross section with Cream City Road. Betty's Bar and the Oconto Town Office are located at the cross section.
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    [DB] By no means, Tom, was I giving criticism to you on your example, as I share your concerns for the surfacestations project.  Since your example was from an area of personal knowledge (I have driven past that station many dozens of times [and past Betty's Bar as well]) I felt compelled to comment.

    Here's a map link directly to the station.  Very rural, mostly cropland.  Primarily corn, beans and wheat.  Winds predominantly from the west; if the station is on the west side of the complex, then it is not possible, unless it were within 2 meters of the building (to catch reflected solar radiation coming off the building in the afternoon sun) for their to be any upwards temperature bias due to siting.  In this climate, it is the southern exposure that receives the biggest increase from building reflected solar radiation (my flowers on the south side always start coming up weeks before those on the west or east sides), but even then, 3 meters would be sufficient separation.

  21. " I have been to Oconto, Wisconsin, many times. Let me assure you that there is nothing in the town remotely urban" Where are your photos? That's where science lies, apparently ... "Albatross, according to Fall et al 2011, final decision on classification rested with Anthony Watts and Evan Jones" [ snipped ] Speaking as a very active citizen scientist actually working on *scientific* data gathering for decades ( being an extremely *minor* aspect of that(.
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  22. dhogaza @21, "Is this any surprise ??? " Sadly, no it is not.
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  23. One thing I haven't seen much discussion of but could easily be monitored is fungi; they might be worth watching for patterns in precipitation/temperature/etc. I know that Chapel Hill NC tended to get a long rainy spell early each summer, after which mushrooms would flourish in the woods. It seems like microenvironmental effects would play a larger role for fungi than for plants and animals, but careful observation, establishing control plots, GPS/GISS technology etc. could help keep account of these factors. Additionally, there are lots of mycological enthusiasts and clubs who would likely be interested in participating. Does anyone know about such a program? If not, I would like to organize one - anyone know any resources or protips?
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