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Sunday, February 17, 2013 - Page updated at 06:30 p.m.

Citizen scientists can be climate sleuths too

By Lynda V. Mapes
Seattle Times staff reporter

BOSTON — It was the torpedoes used to detonate sea ice that stood out as a clue.

Found in a ship’s log from the 1800s, that detail was just one of hundreds culled from a trove of logs from the British Royal Navy that citizen volunteers are devouring, to reconstruct the climate of the past.

Their discovery is part of a citizen-science project that so far has generated 1.6 million new weather records, from 1 million pages of ships’ logs read by more than 16,000 people around the world logged onto, said Philip Brohan, who founded the project.

“We learned from that observation that the sea ice hadn’t moved, but it was thicker,” Brohan said at a presentation on citizen science at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston.

So-called citizen science is a practice in which data of all sorts is gathered by nonexperts and recorded according to set protocols in public databases online. It’s revolutionizing what’s possible in science.

One of the big bonuses is coverage: Citizen observers and researchers mean more boots on the ground to scour old data, and gather more.

From culling ships’ logs for weather records, to analyzing hurricane satellite images, citizens are generating troves of information, said Scott Stevens, who founded last fall to study hurricane satellite images to better understand their nature and patterns.

“We could never hope to analyze 300,000 of these images,” Stevens said. “This network gives us something we simply can’t get any other way.”

And far from bungling it, citizens sometimes get it right when the pros don’t. Citizen observers in the project found 42 planets that NASA had missed when they looked at data.

“People say, ‘Can you trust the public to do things it takes experts years to master?’ ” Stevens said. “History proves we should trust them, and history shows they have found things they had no business finding.”

Seattle projects

While it has new relevance as scientists scramble to gather climate data to understand a warming planet, citizen science is nothing new. Audubon's Christmas Bird Count, surveying bird populations, has been under way for more than a century, and is believed to be the longest-running citizen-science project in the world.

In Seattle, a citizen-science boom is under way. More than 75 high-school students are working with their teachers and the Seattle Aquarium to sample biodiversity and habitat types in intertidal areas of Puget Sound.

Seattle Audubon volunteers in the Neighborhood Bird Project are surveying bird populations in urban neighborhoods to gather data for use in land-use decisions.

Students and citizens are sampling water from rain gutters, street drains, lakes and streams in the SoundCitizen project launched at the University of Washington in 2008, to sleuth out pollutants.

At Seward Park, citizen volunteers are collecting feathers for DNA analysis, sampling Lake Washington for microbial life, and surveying winter shorebird populations.

And at the University of Washington, researchers built an online computer game called Foldit that allows gamers to suss out the structure of biologically important proteins. Some of these citizen scientists are so skillful they outperformed supercomputers.

Startling results

Citizen-science networks are in some ways a leap back to the roots of science. From Benjamin Franklin to Thomas Jefferson, there was a time when people of all walks of life made daily observations of the natural world, recorded them, and kept those records meticulously.

The USA Phenology Network, formed in 2000, has plugged into people’s connection with the seasonal rhythm of the world around them, inviting citizens to track bloom time and bud burst and other seasonal events in an online database.

The results can be startling: The 2,000 observers now participating in that network provided data that showed 2012, the warmest year on record, also saw earlier bloom time, earlier bud burst and the earliest last frost of the year. In the Midwest, spring was a whopping 21 days early.

“This kind of observation is something people have done intuitively since the dawn of civilization, but as a science, only relatively recently,” said Mark Schwartz, founder of the network. “These are real indicators of global climate change.”

There are pitfalls. Building a long-term data set, such as a phenological record, requires that people stick with the project. And some people make mistakes. “They tell us they are observing a red maple, but are they?” Schwartz said.

But some citizen-science networks have cracked scientific mysteries that formal monitoring had not captured. It was a volunteer network of rain, snow and hail observers whose data discerned rainstorms fell in unevenly distributed patterns — so much so that Colorado observers counted two inches in one area and 14 inches just five miles away. That was something the single official government weather station in the region would not have detected.

“More data points is a better picture, just like the pixels in your camera,” said Nolan Doesken, founder of the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail, and Snow Network. “It turns out rain doesn't fall the same on us all.”

This story contains material from Seattle Times archives.

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or

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