While you were enjoying my columns during early November, I was off on an adventure to Chilean Patagonia and Antarctica.
I traveled with Hurtigruten Expeditions on its exploration ship the MS Fridjof Nansen as part of its citizen science program. Throughout our 18-day cruise we made observations of nature as we explored the Patagonian fjords and the Antarctic Penisula.
Citizen science is the practice of voluntarily engaging ordinary people in scientific research that expands the reach of scientific observation for professional scientists. Citizen scientists may design experiments, collect data, analyze results and solve problems.
On our cruise we were collecting observations of birds including penguins, whales, dolphins, seals and clouds. Using phone apps, our observations were uploaded to a variety of platforms and databases of other citizen scientist observations in the same region. After the observations were verified, the databases help track a broader picture of the movements of birds and mammals over time.
This is especially important as climate change affects habitats and food sources. Professional scientists can’t be everywhere to make the observations, so the data collected by citizen observers expands their view and helps refine their observations.
Getting involved in citizen science doesn’t always involve going to far-off places; it can be done right in your own neighborhood with a cellphone and a healthy dose of curiosity. These tools offer classroom educators unique ways to focus science lessons taken from the real world at a minimal cost. Many citizen science programs offer teacher guides and lesson plans.
Here are some widely used and free apps you can download to your phone.
Merlin and eBird
The Merlin app allows you to identify birds from a picture or a bird call using the camera and microphone on your cellphone. Once you have identified the bird, you can add it to your life list and share the sighting with other birders. eBird is a step up from Merlin that allows birders to track the birds they see and then share the sightings with others. The sightings are merged into a database that allows researchers and conservationists to track the movement of populations through the year.
iNaturalist and Seek
iNaturalist and its companion app Seek are designed to let you take photos to identify plants, animals and other natural things you encounter in the woods. You take a close-up picture, and the app will identify it or give you suggestions as to what it is. iNaturalist allows you to crowdsource an identification if need be. The app allows you to share your finds and converse with others in your area about what you saw.
The GLOBE Program is a worldwide science and education program that invites you to make environmental observations that parallel the observations made by NASA satellites to help scientists studying Earth and the global environment. Your observations help scientists confirm and refine their satellite observations. In Antarctica, we used it to record cloud structures from the ground, something satellites can’t do.