Citizen Science: Climatology for Everyone

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.

Posted by Dawei on Saturday, 16 July, 2011

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