Noelle Swan

Posts Tagged ‘climate change’

Citizen science: How families can contribute to real science

In Science Education on April 4, 2013 at 1:20 pm

This article first was published as a guest post on The Christian Science Monitor blog Modern Parenthood on April 4, 2013.

Credit: Dennis Ward, Project Budburst, National Ecological Observatory Network

Credit: Dennis Ward, Project Budburst, National Ecological Observatory Network

What do early radar images of hurricanes, handwritten ship logs, and backyard rain gauges all have in common? More than you might think.

Each of these types of meteorological records represents one small piece of our global climate history. They all hold clues as to how our climate might be (or might not be) changing. And each one offers an opportunity for average citizens of all ages to make meaningful contributions to science.

For many kids, science class means slogging through textbooks, memorizing the discoveries of others, and performing pretested experiments that come with preconceived answers. On the other hand, citizen science projects can offer kids the chance to not just study science but also actually participate in and make a real contribution to science outside the constraints of the classroom.

Citizen science is certainly not new. The Audubon Society has called on amateur birders to conduct its annual Christmas Bird Count since 1900. For centuries, backyard astronomers have recorded their observations of the night sky, helping astronomers map the galaxy.

Today, many scientists are calling on everyday citizens to help understand the scientific issue of the century, global climate change.

When trying to develop a solid picture of the current climate, climatologists have to look at not just large weather patterns, but at individual microclimates. As the old saying goes, “Rain doesn’t fall the same on all.” Farmers and skiers can testify that hail and snow do not either. Piecing together detailed precipitation maps takes an extensive array of data, far beyond the existing weather monitoring infrastructure. So, rain networks around the country have turned to everyday citizens, families, and classrooms to collect and report rainfall measurements.

The Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network, (CoCoRaHS) coordinates local volunteer groups in every state and parts of Canada with sponsorship from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF).

CoCoRaHS participants commit to spending a few minutes each day recording measurements taken from rain gauges, or plastic cylinders used for measuring inches of rainfall, placed outside their homes. Volunteers later upload their data to the CoCoRaHS website. The tasks are simple enough that even children can participate with minimal adult assistance.

In the process, kids get practical experience that reinforces several concepts taught in science class, including taking precise volumetric measurements, following consistent protocols, and organizing data.

Unraveling climate change requires not just an understanding of what is happening right now, but also of historic climate data. Fortunately, citizen scientists have collected weather statistics for centuries. However, much of that information must first be teased out of some unlikely places.

Researchers at Boston University recently plotted observations made in flower journals by Henry David Thoreau, the famed existentialist writer, philosopher, and naturalist, against temperature records to reveal the correlation between the onset of spring and bloom time. The researchers published their findings in the scientific journal PLOS One earlier this year.

Not all of these kinds of records are as manageable.

The British Royal Navy holds extensive daily records that date back to the middle of the 19th century. These detailed logs include wind speed, temperature, barometric pressure, and wave height around the world and across two centuries. Researchers have acquired millions of pages of handwritten logs and need help processing them.

This data holds valuable information about oceanic and arctic weather patterns. However, before climatologists can properly analyze these records, someone has to transcribe them into a digital format that computer modeling programs can read.

That’s where everyday citizen scientists can help.

Volunteers can sign up with and pour through scanned images of ship logs. Since the site’s initial launch in 2010, citizen scientists have helped to transcribe over 20,000 log pages, an impressive number but still only 14 percent of the pages waiting to be recorded.

To help break up the tedium of data transcription, has made the project something of a game. Volunteers can join a specific vessel, focusing on logs from a particular journey. Volunteers sign on at the rank of cadet. As they complete additional pages, they earn promotions. The volunteer who completes the most pages for that vessel becomes the captain of the ship. Those who continue with the project consistently soon find additional rewards hidden within the logs.

Sailors recorded much more than weather data in these log books. As volunteers sift through several pages, stories begin to emerge. Some logs detail the effects of the Spanish flu. Others talk about new pathways opening up in the Arctic as ice formations changed. Many detail happenings of the ship’s daily life, from reprimands for drunken sailors, to the tragic loss of a ship’s chocolate stores that were swept overboard. For kids and adults, these kind of stories help bring history to life.

These are just a couple of the many projects searching for citizen scientists. Meteorologists at the Cyclone Center need volunteers to help classify early infrared and satellite images of hurricanes in order to help understand if current storms are more intense than historic storms. Biologists at Nature’s Notebook need amateur naturalists to submit observations of phonological data, such as first leaf out, bloom time, bird migration, and insect emergence. Many more projects can be found on the Citizen Science Alliance website.


UD researcher explores potential impact of new ice island breaking off Greenland

In Climate Change on July 25, 2012 at 6:06 pm

This article first was published by DFM News on July 25, 2012.

A floating ice island, twice the size of Manhattan, broke off of Petermann’s Glacier last week. The glacier, a giant ice pack, connects Greenland’s ice sheet to the Arctic Ocean. According to University of Delaware researcher Andreas Muenchow, this most recent event could be literally just the tip of the iceberg, a warning sign that the rate at which the Greenland ice sheet discharges freshwater into the Arctic Ocean is accelerating and potentially driving a global rise in sea level.“This ice island looks dramatic, but the larger story will evolve over 10 years,” says Muenchow, an assistant professor of physical ocean science and engineering.

Muenchow is conducting a multi-year study of freshwater discharge into the Arctic Ocean in collaboration with Canadian researchers and the U.S. and Canadian coast guards. Next week, Muenchow will collect instruments that he hopes lie waiting at the bottom of Nares Strait, where he and his fellow researchers deposited them in 2009 to record basic information about salinity, temperature, currents, and pressure. In 2010, another giant ice island, this one four times the size of Manhattan, broke off in the same area of Petermann’s Glacier. This 2010 ice island purportedly floated directly above these instruments which could be a blessing or a curse; his instruments could either be ruined or contain bonus data about the passing ice island.

When he heard about the new ice island last week, Muenchow downloaded the raw data from a NASA database and processed the imagery. As the world started to ask questions about the Arctic Ocean’s newest ice island, his Canadian colleagues found themselves tangled in a controversial gag order requiring all Canadian scientists to sift through red tape before speaking with the press and leaving the UD professor to field the press.

Most Americans are familiar with the photos of Alaska’s majestic cliff glacier formations, which tower above the sea, routinely shedding chunks of ice into Glacier Bay, Muenchow explains. However, this latest ice island broke away from a different kind of glacier, a sheet of ice that stretches out flat and thin across the surface of the ocean, closer to the frozen surface of a pond than a solid mountain of ice. At 656,000 square miles, the Greenland ice sheet is the second largest expanse of ice in the world, second only to the Arctic ice sheet.

Glaciers flow continuously. Their speed is well … glacial, so humans can’t see it happening. The effects are visible, however, as pieces of ice continually break off into the sea in a process known as “calving.” Muenchow worries that the combined girth of the 2010 and 2012 calvings could signal major changes in the overall ice sheet.

“Breaking off is perfectly normal to us in a state where nothing is changing. That’s happening all around Antarctica. Because these masses of ice are so huge and they reflect what is happening all over Greenland in some way, they have an impact.”

Researchers may not fully understand that impact for years to come, Muenchow adds. While chunks of ice that tumble from cliffs and splash in the waters below add volume to the sea and immediately affect sea level, Greenland’s ice sheet adds volume continually as it expands and the edges melt into the sea. Melt-off accounts for far more glacier loss than even ice islands of this size. While some melt-off is typical every summer, NASA satellite imagery released this week indicates that this month melt-off has reached unprecedented levels.

The size of this ice island and the one that broke off in 2010, the likes of which Muenchow says have not been observed in the last 100 to 150 years, raise additional concerns. A delicate balance keeps a glacier glued to the layer of bedrock below. Ice, rock, and sea meet at what is called the hinge line. In Antarctica, researchers have seen hinge lines move over time, resulting in a thinner, potentially less stable ice sheet behind it. “We don’t know what it takes to move that hinge line. Nobody knows,” Muenchow says, adding that in general the physics are poorly understood.

The advent of these giant ice islands combined with rapid melting have left researchers scrambling to understand what this means for global climate. Greenland has been long considered a canary in the coal mine for global climate change. Only time will tell how drastic changes seen this summer affect the rest of the world.