The Nature of Things·In Depth

A revolution in science: 5 ways to contribute to climate change research with your phone

Citizen science lets non-scientists contribute to important research

Citizen science lets non-scientists contribute to important research

Citizen science lets non-scientists contribute to important research (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

On Vancouver Island, the Nanwakolas Council, a group of five member First Nations, is working to restore an ecosystem hard hit by climate change. As the rivers have warmed, the salmon that spawn in Knight Inlet have been declining. Fewer salmon means fewer bears — and an unhealthy forest. 

As we see in Ice and Fire: Tracking Canada's Climate Crisis, a documentary from The Nature of Things, by building new channels of cool freshwater, the council hoped to increase the number of salmon spawning in the area. 

Thinking more salmon should mean more bears and a healthier ecosystem, the council enlisted University of Victoria behavioural ecologist Melanie Clapham and her BearID Project to find out if the animals are returning to the area. 

BearID — an example of citizen, or community, science — allows anyone to take a photo of a bear they see and send it to Clapham and her team. Using facial recognition software, the researchers can determine if the bear is new to the area and track its movements over time.

"The more images of the animal's face that we have, the better the software will be because it learns how to get better over time at recognizing individual grizzly bears," said Clapham.

Melanie Clapham takes images of bears, collected from the forest, and runs them through facial recognition software to identify individuals and their movements. (Yap Films)

The information from BearID has been integral to measuring the success of the Nanwakolas Council's restoration project. And the results show their efforts are working. The healthier spawning channels are attracting more salmon and therefore more bears. 

A powerful tool for all

There simply aren't enough scientists and students to collect the data needed to measure the impact of climate change, but with citizen science, regular people can chip in by contributing observations about what they see around them. Information and photos can be shared with scientists in real time through apps and websites.

EBird is probably one of the most famous citizen science projects. Launched by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, it's a website and mobile app that allows users around the world to note bird sightings, logging the species and location along with pictures and song recordings. 

The program is now one of the world's largest biodiversity-related science projects, recording more than 100 million bird sightings each year. 

EBird users can access data from any location, in any year, which can tell them where to look for a certain species and which birds may be nearby. And researchers use the same data to look at how climate change is affecting the animals. The information has been used in hundreds of scientific studies and conservation decisions.

Citizen science benefits everyone

Citizen science isn't just about animals. 

RinkWatch is all about the backyard rink: participants monitor their local weather and report on conditions for outdoor skating. "We invited people from across North America who have backyard rinks to visit our website and pin the location on our interactive map," said Robert McLeman, a professor of environmental studies at Wilfrid Laurier University and co-founder of RinkWatch. "Then [they] report skating conditions to us throughout the winter."

With the data submitted, McLeman and his fellow researchers have been able to forecast an alarming decrease in the colder days that are ideal for skating, by the end of this century.

"The backyard rink is sort of a cultural icon," he said. "It's part of … what being a Canadian is all about, and it would be a real shame if we lost that."

WATCH: How RinkWatch is informing climate change, and what citizen science is saying about the future of our favourite Canadian pastime.

Bye bye backyard rinks: a favourite Canadian pastime could be lost to climate change | Ice and Fire: Tracking Canada's Climate Crisis

4 months ago
Duration 2:37
A citizen science project, tracking outdoor skating conditions across North America, is forecasting some grim predictions for those of us who enjoy our backyard rinks.

How to help climate change science in Canada

There's no way scientists can visit every corner of our country to collect data, but through citizen science projects, they have eyes everywhere. This helps create more robust data and more precise conclusions about climate change and where we're headed.With a few clicks, we can all contribute to the studies that are informing our future. 

Here are a few citizen science projects from across Canada.

RinkWatch: Monitoring winter weather across North America via reports of local skating conditions, the project is charting the impact of climate change across the continent. 

RiverWatch: Generates data on the water quality and history of creeks and rivers across Alberta to improve their health. 

iNaturalist: Hikers and campers can submit photos of plants, animals, other organisms and natural features they come across. Visitors to B.C.'s provincial parks and protected areas can upload data specific to those regions and the information shared through the iNaturalist website and app helps with decisions about conservation in the province. 

BearID Project: A team on Vancouver Island is developing facial recognition technology to monitor brown bears. They say their software could eventually be used for other threatened species and aid in conservation efforts around the world.

Snowtweets: Run by the University of Waterloo, the project collects data about snow depth via Twitter submissions from around the world. Users can see it all mapped on an online tool and compare how the amounts line up with satellite images of snow cover from NASA.

For more community science projects in your area, visit the government of Canada's Citizen Science Portal.

Watch Ice and Fire: Tracking Canada's Climate Crisis on The Nature of Things.

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