NOAA on Citizen Science: It’s in America’s DNA

This is a cross post from NOAA’s blog at the Office of Education: The article is drawn from a keynote by NOAA Chief Scientist, Dr. Richard Spinrad, at a forum hosted by the U.S. Global Climate Change Research Program and the Wilson Center Commons Lab. With a focus on the vital role of citizen science, the forum was entitled, Tracking a Changing Climate.

Citizen science is part of America’s DNA.  For centuries, citizens not trained in science have helped shaped our understanding of Earth.

Thomas Jefferson turned Lewis and Clark into citizen scientists when he asked them to explore the landscape, wildlife and weather during their journeys of the West. They investigated plants, animals and geography, and came back with maps, sketches and journals.  These new data were some of the first pieces of environmental intelligence defining our young nation.  President Jefferson instilled citizen science in my own agency’s DNA by creating the Survey of the Coast, a NOAA legacy agency focused on charting  and protecting the entire coast of our Nation.

2014-11-18 02 48 07The National Weather Service’s Cooperative Observer Program, begun in 1890, is an outstanding example of citizen science. Last year, NOAA honored an observer who has provided weather observations every day for 80 years. Volunteer citizen scientists have transcribed more than 68,000 pages of Arctic ship logs, adding to the long-term climate record by populating a database with historic weather and sea ice observations. Also, citizen scientists are providing new estimates of cyclone intensity by interpreting satellite images.

There is tremendous value in the capability of citizen scientists to feed local data into their own communities’ forecasts. In September 2013, for example, formal observation systems and tracking instruments were washed out when extreme floods struck Colorado and New Mexico. By ensuring that real-time forecasts were still integrated into the National Weather Service Flood Warning System, the reports of about 200 citizen scientists contributed to what has been called the best mapped extreme rain event in Colorado history and possibly nationwide.

The Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow (CoCoRaHS) Network played a pivotal role in this mapping. CoCoRaHS also shows how citizen science can help make data collection straightforward and inexpensive. To measure the impact and size of hail, for example, it uses a Styrofoam sheet covered with tin foil, creating a “hail pad” that has proven to be quite accurate.

The recognized value of citizen science is growing rapidly.  NOAA has an app to crowdsource real-time precipitation data. If you feel a raindrop, or spot a snowflake, report it through NOAA’s mPING app. Precipitation reports have already topped 600,000, and the National Weather Service uses them to fine-tune forecasts.

To improve the usefulness of climate information for the Nation, the recently released National Climate Assessmentengaged a wide range of scientists and citizens across the U.S. The National Climate Assessment, made public by theU.S. Global Change Research Program, provides a detailed look at how climate change is affecting and will increasingly affect our lives.  For the second assessment, there were 30 authors. For the third assessment, released last May, 5,000 people were directly engaged, including about 1,000 people providing technical input, 300 authors and more than 150 organizations.

The National Climate Assessment is among several initiatives providing critical climate information to the public, stakeholders across all sectors, and scientific communities. In June 2013, President Obama announced the National Climate Action Plan. The Climate Data Initiative, a part of the Climate Action Plan, is making large volumes of data from multiple sources accessible to all.  The Climate and Natural Resources Priority Agenda has actions to help States, Tribes, and local governments make our nation’s natural resources more resilient to climate change.  In November of 2014, theClimate Resilience Toolkit was introduced. It is a powerful and practical tool that offers steps to build more resilient communities. It helps a business owner, for example, understand how future sea level rise may affect property values and what adjustments might be needed to business plans and loan requests.

All of these climate-resilient initiatives will benefit greatly from a set of national indicators. Indicators, which are physical, societal and ecological measures of change, are envisioned as an important foundational product of the National Climate Assessment.  They will help communicate key impacts of a changing environment, identify vulnerabilities, and support informed decisions at every level of government.

Citizen scientists can play a huge role in contributing to these indicators, not only by maximizing the input of local knowledge, but by moving beyond the role of data-collector to become actual evaluators, or co-pilots test-driving products and services. Identifying what is needed, and how and under what conditions it can best work, should come directly from those whose lives, livelihoods, and community economies will be affected.

At NOAA, for example, citizen scientists participate in more than 65 projects, contributing to the environmental intelligence required to advance NOAA core missions.  Building more resilient communities (ecologically, socially and economically) means not only durable infrastructure but making sure the fishing community is able to plan for the effects of climate change on commercially-valuable species.  Evolving the National Weather Service means anticipating that, for example, in some parts of the nation, NOAA customers will benefit from harmful algal bloom forecasts along with traditional weather information.  Ensuring robust observations goes right to the heart of citizen science, requiring the quality and vast breadth of data that only comes with local knowledge.  Citizen scientists can serve as role as co-designers of the products and services developed to advance these priorities.

NOAA has launched a Citizen Science Community of Practice, and we’re pleased to partner with the Citizen Science Association and our Federal partners. Collectively our challenge, and it’s a two-way street, is to fully optimize Federal and local capacities, and to make sure that climate-related indicators truly meet community and sector-specific needs.  Citizen science will be indispensable in gauging the value of these efforts.

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