I love science for its inquiry, information gathering, critical thinking and problem solving. In college I majored in botany and zoology and minored in chemistry. Science has stimulated my natural curiosity and wonder about the world around me. In the many decades since, I have had numerous opportunities to keep that intellectual curiosity alive as a citizen scientist.
Volunteer citizen scientists support the work of scientists and institutions by gathering information using prescribed protocols. (Some organizations now use the term “community scientists” to imply a welcome of all people wanting to help, regardless of citizenship.) Two fields of study—ornithology and meteorology—are particularly enhanced by citizen scientists because they deal with subjects that know no political boundaries.
Audubon Christmas Bird Count
Part of my holiday tradition for the last half century is to participate in my local Audubon Christmas Bird Count. Launched in 1900 as an alternative to the then popular traditions of going out on Christmas day to shoot birds for food and sport, the CBC count has become the largest and longest running citizen scientist project in the western hemisphere, if not the world.
Counts are organized into teams that cover an area defined by a 15-mile diameter circle. Ideally each team has one or two members proficient at identifying birds AND counting them, but anyone is welcome. Whidbey Island is large enough and has enough enthusiastic birders that we have both a north end and a south end count on different days in the two-week period surrounding Christmas.
I participate in the north end count on a team of 3 birders. In 2023 our count had a total of 15 teams with 39 volunteers who counted 119 species on count day, plus two additional in Count Week (Western Tanager and Northern Shrike). The total number of birds counted was 21,426.
Dissecting the data, we see the significance of team work. Our longstanding, skilled team saw 61 species. The total of 15 teams in our area counted 119 species. Most notable for the three of us were the large rafts of surf scoters—a sea duck. For a total listing of our species count: https://ebird.org/tripreport/182007
Since 2000, all CBC results have been entered online. This has become one of the most important data sets for researchers to track the health of avian populations across the Western Hemisphere.
The CBC informs scientists about trends and patterns in winter bird populations over the decades. For example, Christmas Bird Counts have contributed to the knowledge that populations of barred owls have expanded from the east into the Pacific Northwest where they are outcompeting and hybridizing with the threatened northern spotted owl. Another example focuses on species like pine siskins and red crossbills that have “irruptions”—that is, one year we see quite a few of them, the next year none. An “irruption” is the movement of a species from one location to another because of food availability. Shortages are usually based on the cyclical availability of food like pine cones.
Citizen CBC scientists use the tools of spotting scopes, binoculars, and decades of experience. It is terrific to be part of a gigantic effort that gives data to scientists that they alone would never be able to amass.
CoCoRaHS (Community Collaborative Rain, Hail & Snow Network).
Weather is a passion of mine. Ever since paddling around Lake Superior in 1992 when daily weather checks of our hand-held weather band radios were crucial to our safety, I have paid attention to the weather. (No cell phones back in those days!) In 2008 I joined a volunteer reporting network affiliated with the National Weather Service which gave me a tangible, daily practice of weather recording and watching.
This network, called CoCoRaHS, was launched because of a tragedy that might have been preventable if the NWS had access to more data stations. On July 27, 1997, over thirteen inches of rain (almost the city’s annual average) fell on the west side of Ft. Collins, CO resulting in a flash flood that killed five people and caused millions of dollars of damage. Because the storm cell was an intense, highly localized event in a remote canyon, the National Weather Service had no way to record that the event was happening and thus warn people downstream of the potential for intense flooding.
The event spurred state meteorologist, Nolan Doesken, high school students, and other state emergency managers, to create a volunteer network of reporting stations to expand the predicting capabilities of the NWS. The private nonprofit became known as CoCoRaHS.
Most areas have micro-climates. A micro-climate is created by a combination of temperature, light, windspeed and moisture. For example, here on Whidbey Island the yearly average rainfall for my gauge is about 27.72 inches (an average of 16 years of data). Coupeville, WA located only 12 miles north has an average annual rainfall of 20.66 inches. Coupeville is in the “rain shadow” of the Olympic Mountains.
The Wikipedia definition of rain shadow: “an area of significantly reduced rainfall behind a mountainous region, on the side facing away from prevailing winds, known as the leeward side.” Depicted in this diagram, we know that my Freeland area of Whidbey is not as protected from prevailing Pacific Ocean storm moisture as is Coupeville. The precise definition of where the Olympic Mountain Rain Shadow lies has been based on data from many local reporting stations.
There are now over 26,000 active CoCoRaHS active observers in the U.S., Canada, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Bahamas and Guam. Everyone of us empties our rain gauge before 8 a.m. in the morning and sends the data in.
Weather matters. It is probably the one natural phenomenon effecting the most people every day. Our amateur measurements make weather predicting more precise because the increased number of reporting stations gives meteorologists more data. Had the COCORAHS network been in place, perhaps the deaths from the 1997 Ft. Collins flood resulting from the storm up in Big Thompson Canyon could have been prevented.
In a civilized society we watch out for one another. We care what happens to the planet and our fellow human beings. A tangible way to engage that care is as a citizen scientist.