Are you plugged in to the Internet? Are you an amateur hiker? Photographer? Gardener? Birdwatcher? Frog aficionado? Nature lover? If the answer to any of these questions is "yes," then with the click of a button you can also make a serious contribution to the study of climate change.
Online social networking is no longer just about tagging a picture of your dog on Facebook or announcing to the world what you’re having for dinner on Twitter. Scientific institutions worldwide are beginning to harness the power of online social networking for scientific research. Online communities are an ideal vehicle for matching professional scientists with armies of enthusiastic amateurs. This corps of citizen scientists has the capacity to capture far more data over a vastly expanded geographical spectrum than professional scientists can on their own.
The USA National Phenology Network is one organization that is reaching out to citizen scientists via the Internet. People have used phenology, the study of the timing of lifecycle events of plants and animals, to detect the signs of spring since the early 18th century. The rising threat posed by global warming has spurred scientists to put phenology to another use: to detect the signs of climate change.
Plants and animals are very sensitive to even the smallest changes in their climates. Shifts in the timing of their lifecycle events can therefore be an important indicator in the study of climate change and its effects. Slight changes can have huge repercussions; mutual relationships between species and even entire systems can begin to fall apart.
USA-NPN is asking people across the country to record the phenology of their local flora and then report it online. Amateur hikers and photographers can also participate in NPN’s Project Budburst. They are asked to identify the phenological stage of the flowers and plants they see using information provided by the project’s website. The participants record the location, longitude, and latitude of what they observe. Eventually, Project Budburst will use this information to include real-time mapping with Google maps.
Relying on anonymous volunteers to collect data that will be entered into important scientific databases certainly raises questions about the reliability of the information gathered. Yet it turns out that most of the data is remarkably accurate, and researchers do perform checks on anomalous data. What’s more, the large pool of samples collected by a large group of volunteers diminishes the impact of any faulty data.
This creative new use for social networking also answers critics’ accusations about the frivolity of Facebook, Twitter, and other sites with proof that online networking has the potential to mobilize users to actively participate in innovative programs. Jack Weltzin, executive director of NPN, has said that in the future NPN hopes to make it possible for people to submit their findings via Twitter. NPN, a nonprofit organization, also hopes that iPhone and Facebook applications might be created to more easily facilitate volunteer participation.
Climate change scientists are not the only members of the scientific profession to tap into the potential of these online communities. In addition to tracking climate change, the information participants collect can help scientists predict wildfires and pollen production and monitor droughts as well as detect and control invasive species. Other online projects, such as "The Great World Wide Star Count," rely on volunteer participation to gauge the level of light pollution across the globe. Several websites are also dedicated to tracking the migratory and breeding patterns of animals such as birds, frogs, and butterflies. All of these observations will augment the databases available to scientists attempting to understand annual fluctuations.
Imagine what the near future will bring—a world where you wake up, look out your window, and notice the first lilac blossom of spring. As you drink your coffee, you report your floral spotting on Twitter. Presto! You’ve made a contribution to the study of climate change before you’ve even had your eggs.
So the next time you head outside, grab your camera and snap a picture of the flowers that are starting to bloom in your neighbor’s yard. Then plot your location on your Google maps and give scientists the help they need to understand global warming and its consequences.