Hikers, climbers and skiers are helping scientists collect the expansive data sets needed to explore climate change’s thorny questions over a wide territory.
At the pace of a wedding march, a group of six hikers saunters down the Sunrise Rim Trail on a recent Wednesday morning. Over their left shoulders, Mount Rainier’s Emmons Glacier wilts against a sapphire backdrop.
Suddenly, Tucker Grigsby, an intern with the National Park Service, lurches forward and bounds down the trail. With a snap of the wrist worthy of Roger Federer, he flicks a net through the air and captures his floating prize — a magnificent orange and black banded butterfly.
As soon as the specimen is secure, the hikers crowd around Grigsby, who holds up a ventilated bug jar.
“Can you guys tell me which one this is?” Grigsby says. Each takes a turn handling the jar.
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The group studies the markings on the butterfly and determines it to be an Edith’s Checkerspot — one of five species captured that day.
No, these hikers are not collectors (no pins needed; it’s catch and release). Most of them are not scientists.
They’re volunteers with the Cascades Butterfly Project, learning to gather data that will help measure the impact of climate change on these important pollinators and Mount Rainier National Park itself.
Today, they’re learning to walk a “transect” of about a half-mile and capture any butterflies that flutter into an imaginary 16-foot box in front of them. They also catalog plant varieties.
Volunteers will gather data each week this summer at 10 sites in the Cascades.
Scientists can probe the data for patterns and compare plants’ growth with the emergence of the fluttering pollinators, said Regina Rochefort, science adviser at North Cascades National Park. The big question: As the climate changes, “Are plants responding at the same rate as the butterflies?”
The question mirrors what scientists worldwide are asking of any number of environmental features: How will nature adapt to a world growing warmer?
To collect the expansive data sets needed to explore climate change’s thorny questions, scientists are increasingly turning to unpaid volunteers. Washington state — with a bevy of hikers, climbers and skiers exploring the natural world — makes for fertile recruiting ground.
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Citizen science is both centuries old and a movement brand-new.
Many point to 1900 as citizen science’s birth. At the time, sportsmen commonly hunted nongame birds on Christmas Day. Concerned about conservation, New Jersey ornithologist Frank Chapman proposed counting birds instead of shooting them and the Christmas Bird Count was born. Now, data from 116 years of the Audubon Society-sponsored activity is available on the society’s website.
But Julia Parrish, a University of Washington biology professor, said the concept of citizen science is as old as humanity.
“Every culture … pays attention to natural phenomena, and we refer to that as an almanac,” said Parrish. “I need to know when the birds are going to be here. I need to know when the salmon are returning … that kept people alive and that is the real start of citizen science.”
Once a target of skepticism among researchers, citizen science is now so popular it has its own association, a conference dedicated to its development and a number of websites that host data or match people with projects.
The Oxford English Dictionary in 2014 added “citizen science” to its volumes, defining the practice as “scientific work undertaken by members of the general public, often in collaboration with or under the direction of professional scientists and scientific institutions.”
“There was some concern that citizen science wouldn’t be good enough to publish in journals, but that has been dispelled,” said Martin Storksdieck, an Oregon State University professor studying the topic, who noted that passionate volunteers are no less reliable than undergraduates making minimum wage.
Popularity has grown “in terms of the number of projects out there, the diversity of projects out there, the disciplines, and the people engaging with it,” he said.
Many disciplines are leaning on volunteers. Some crowdsource analysis in cases where human brains still exceed computer algorithms. University of Washington researchers, for example, developed a puzzle game called Foldit, in which people manipulate, or “fold” digital protein structures. The patterns people find can sometimes be applied to fight deadly diseases.
Other projects focus on a specific problem, like testing the water quality of a local stream.
Climate study is a natural fit for citizen science, Storksdieck said.
“Where someone has to observe something … you need people on the ground,” he said. “Citizen science is ideal for that.”
As scientists learn to trust participants in collecting data, the hope is that participants will gain trust in science.
“We’re not trying to trick them into learning science,” said Darlene Cavalier, who founded SciStarter, a citizen science project database. “They’re so valuable for what they’re going to be able to contribute to scientific research. … It’s a great additional outcome.”
* * *
It’s been a busy summer for citizen science in the Pacific Northwest.
The Mountaineers, a climbing club based in Seattle, has been training dozens of its members on how to identify pika, rabbitlike mammals with Mickey Mouse ears that live in alpine environments.
“We’re already up there,” said Becca Polglase, education manager for The Mountaineers. “Everyone already looks for pika.”
So why not document where they live for science?
“Nobody knows much about the range of pika in the Pacific Northwest,” said David Shepherdson, a conservation manager at the Oregon Zoo researching the animals.
Throughout the summer, Polglase trained members to identify pika by their scat, “haypile” vegetation storage, vocal calls and visual markings.
Then, members upload pika sightings to a database maintained by the Point Defiance and Oregon zoos, which have spearheaded the Cascades Pika Watch program.
Pika are notoriously intolerant of high temperatures and live in rockfall to take advantage of shade, insulation and protection from aerial predators. Rarely do they venture far from their rock piles.
“They’re kind of on little islands,” said Shepherdson.
Warming temperatures could threaten those islands, scientists fear.
With hiker-submitted GPS data, scientists will be able to map pika’s range, know where to conduct further study and examine changes over time.
* * *
Meanwhile, on the snow-covered slopes of the North Cascades, skiers and climbers have been patrolling for “watermelon snow,” or sections that look as if they’ve been dusted with red Kool-Aid powder.
It’s actually snow algae blooming on or beneath the surface, which can contribute to melt and glacier loss because it changes how sunlight reflects off snow and ice.
“We do not know anything about dispersal. We don’t know how snow algae get there or how they spread,” Kodner said. “One of the goals of my project is to understand when and where the algae are blooming in the North Cascades.”
The rugged, alpine environment in the North Cascades makes that difficult. Watermelon snow is often found on remote snowfields or glaciers that can be dangerous to access.
“I can’t send my students to go climb Mount Shuksan because I got a report there’s snow algae blooming there,” Kodner said.
Earlier this year, Kodner and students began callouts to backcountry skiers and fellow climbers on social media and message boards.
Can you carry a test tube, they asked, and scoop up pink snow and pin a GPS coordinate at the bloom’s location.
“It helps me sample more broadly,” Kodner said. “Ultimately I can make a map — these are the places we see snow algae bloom. I want to see how it changes over time.”
* * *
Since 1998, beachcombers have been tracking bird die-offs along the Washington coast for one of the most mature citizen programs in the country.
Parrish, the biology professor at UW, started the COASST project nearly 20 years ago to gather data in case of an oil spill. In a disaster, she’d be able to produce data that showed how many birds were dying pre-catastrophe.
In her wildest dreams, Parrish said, she hoped to have 50 people sign up to monitor 25 sites for dead birds.
COASSTers now keep tabs on about 550 sites along the Pacific Coast and in Puget Sound, which means the data set is broad enough and old enough to address climate questions.
“In order to assess the impacts of climate change, you need a long-term signal,” Parrish said.
In recent years, her data has measured the effects of the Northeast Pacific heat wave, a mass of warm water hovering off the coast that scientists have referred to as the “blob.”
“We have had many die-offs,” she said. “They stacked up on top of each other faster and larger than they ever had in the existence of COASST … that points to what a warming climate might have in store.”
* * *
Visiting nature’s pristine places can feel selfish sometimes. Venturing into high country can leave fragile plants trampled. Disrupting animals on trails can cause stress. The gas that propels our Subarus to trailheads can keep a green conscience pumping with guilt, too.
For those contributing to citizen science, snagging butterflies or tracking pika gives purpose to their adventures.
“It’s important to give back,” said Sue Safford, a Portlander documenting butterflies at Sunrise for the Cascades Butterfly Project. “It’s important we document what’s here now in light of changes occurring.”
“When you retire, you’ve got to get a second job,” said David Purdon. Learning about butterflies, he said, satisfied his curiosity and expanded his understanding of the places he backpacks. That’s something he can share with other visitors to Mount Rainier.
“I see these (pika) all the time — I’d like to help these guys out,” said Sam McNerney, 17, a high-school student in Sammamish who was learning how to identify pika earlier this summer from The Mountaineers.
“Scientists can’t be everywhere,” said Kathy Moorhouse, Sam’s mother. “Plus, it’s better than finding Pokémon.”