Whether spooking a deer on a woodland walk or peering at a bug that has touched down on our arm, connecting with nature is often an intimate, fleeting experience. But every trip outdoors is also a chance to help protect the wild places and things we cherish, thanks to the exploding popularity of citizen science.
Anyone with an internet connection can record their sightings of plants and animals and submit them to a fast-growing array of national and global databases. This information has become a vital resource for organizations trying to work out the best way protect natural resources and biodiversity.
“Data-gathering by armies of ordinary citizens is making a really valuable contribution to science, especially in the monitoring of our threatened environment,” says Jackie McGlade, head of UN Environment’s Science Division. “Technology has unlocked their potential.”
Birds, a great indicator of the health of Earth and its ecosystems, are a good example.
The entire globe is now covered by smartphone apps and websites such as Cornell University’s eBird, where enthusiasts and professionals alike can enter their records and read about the research that they have made possible.
Mapping species’ distribution and abundance helps identify habitats and biodiversity hotspots that enable scientists and policymakers to design more effective conservation strategies. The data gets even more valuable with time, as it reveals how nature is reacting to pressures such as climate change or pollution.
For example, volunteer surveys run by the British Trust for Ornithology show how species such as the cuckoo have moved uphill as well as northward in response to warmer temperatures, changing the kind of habitat that needs to be conserved to protect this dwindling species.
As part of the Southern Africa Bird Atlas Project, enthusiasts are gathering GPS-located information on birds and other species that could be threatened by government hopes of extracting shale gas from the semi-desert Karoo region.
Many amateur ornithologists are skilled at identifying the birds they encounter. But you don’t have to be an expert to take part in projects that can be rewarding for adults and lots of fun for children.
Platforms such as the global iNaturalist and Singapore’s BioAtlas also encourage people to send in photos of everything from orchids and conifers to butterflies and frogs so that scientists can help identify their discoveries.
Last year, hundreds of people fanned out across northern Kenya in search of the endangered Grevy’s zebra. Volunteers photographed the uniquely ‘bar-coded’ flanks of nearly 2,000 animals and submitted them along with their GPS coordinates, helping scientists establish the age structure as well as location of 80 per cent of the Kenyan population, the world’s largest.
Some projects get even more hands-on.
Marshalled by the Earthwatch Institute, schools, companies, research institutes and individuals from Shanghai and Kolkata to Vancouver and The Great Lakes have taken more than 17,000 water samples from rivers and lakes. They test them for problems such as high concentrations of agricultural fertilizers.
Canada’s NatureWatch, one of the longest-running citizen science efforts, challenges kids to dig up worms (unharmed J) and count them in order to track the changing health of soils.
Also in North America, the Lost Ladybug project is selling the tiny larvae of the rare ninespotted ladybug to citizen scientists in New York State so they can help revive a species valued by farmers for its diet of crop-destroying aphids.
As well as supporting conservation, citizen scientists are helping advance human knowledge and well-being in many other ways.
The MarineDebrisTracker app encourages Americans dismayed at the vast amounts of rubbish on their beaches and in the ocean to log it for analysis by experts, as well to as clear the trash away.
Citizens are helping health authorities in countries including Spain to track the spread of mosquitoes that can carry diseases like malaria, dengue, zika and chikunguya. UN Environment and the Wilson Center want to gather those projects on a global platform where information can be shared publicly and in real-time.
Things can get considerably more niche: through the zooniverse platform, for instance, volunteers are helping researchers with all sorts of daunting data-processing tasks, from analysing the diaries of First World War soldiers to mapping the strange polygonal ridges on the surface of Mars.
Whatever your interests, there is almost certainly a science project out there that needs citizen help. World Environment Day, with its theme of ‘Connecting People to Nature’, could be the ideal occasion to join in.