Eco author in Asheville April 6
Citizen science can foster earth-saving policies
Journalist Mary Ellen Hannibal, author of Citizen Scientist: Searching for Heroes and Hope in an Age of Extinction, speaks at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café, 7 p.m., Thursday, April 6 in conversation with Mallory McDuff, Warren Wilson College environmental science professor.
The San Francisco Chronicle named Citizen Scientist one of the best books of 2016.
“Citizen science is our best strategy for stemming the sixth mass extinction going on right now, and the disastrous loss of biodiversity in general,” Hannibal says.
Becoming a Citizen Scientist
by Mary Ellen Hannibal
Citizen science is the grand tradition of the amateur, and in general means regular people contributing to science. It’s a very old practice, in which you can rub historical elbows with the likes of Aristotle and Thomas Jefferson. Beyond Western European traditions, indigenous cultures have long observed nature to create “traditional ecological knowledge.” Charles Darwin is perhaps the poster child for citizen science. He did not have an advanced degree, and he worked under the aegis of no institution. Darwin made direct observations of nature from which he developed his ideas about evolution by way of natural selection. His thought, and those of natural selection’s co-creator Alfred Russel Wallace, was based in biogeography – where we find what plants and animals, in what amounts, and how they got there. These concepts are the basis for how citizen science can help save nature today.
Here’s how I became a citizen scientist. While researching my 2009 book Evidence of Evolution, I interviewed scores of PhD scientists virtually all of whom said, “I’ll help you understand how life begins, but let me tell you first how it is prematurely terminating.” Upwards of 23,000 species today are threatened with extinction. In just the past 40 years, wild species populations have shrunk in alarming numbers: 39% of marine wildlife and 76% of freshwater wildlife are gone. A billion birds have disappeared from the continent since 1970.
My life changed when I fully grokked this. I wrote my next book, The Spine of the Continent, to help explain how and why it’s happening. Along the way I asked myself, “What could scale to actually save nature?” I reported on the valiant efforts of many – scientists as well as nonprofit and agency personnel – but the basic news is not good. We are losing nature at a horrifying rate that is not letting up. Is anything working here?
Researching The Spine I participated in some citizen science projects. I helped monitor the health of Utah forests, which led to changes in grazing rules. I participated in carnivore tracking in Arizona, which helped establish highway overpasses to help wildlife avoid becoming roadkill. I joined teams of people from multiple ages, races, and walks of life. No one talked politics. Once people observe and document nature, they are likely to become advocates for their study subject. I saw this happen with my own eyes. Direct participation in nature helps save it.
Today citizen science is turbo-charged by smartphone technology and vast computing power – I don’t think we have yet begun to unpack its potential. I was inspired to write Citizen Scientist to investigate that and to help spread the word.
One of the biggest impediments to saving nature is that we have incomplete information about where it is, in what amounts, at any given time. This goes back to that biogeography context for understanding evolution. Evolution of course not only encompasses how life begins, but how it ends. Extinction is a natural part of evolution, but today it is occurring at a vastly accelerated rate due to human impacts. Folded into my book are stories about the discovery process behind some of the major concepts around how and why too much extinction happens.
The biggest culprit in worldwide species reduction is habitat loss. When new development is on the docket, we need to be more informed about the habitat being displaced. Data collected even from urban decks and suburban back yards (with highly vetted programs like eBird and iNaturalist), can help create a better picture of what species are on the landscape. Plants are ground zero for documenting the impacts of climate change on the biotic world, and projects that monitor when buds open and leaves drop (Budburst and Nature’s Notebook) are essential to helping plan adaptation strategies in a time of uncertainty and change.
Citizen science is about much more than data points. It is about being where you are, knowing what other life forms are present with you. It entails appreciating how living and nonliving systems create the world we call home, and how all this evolved. The citizen scientist, of course, is an amateur – the root of that word is from the Latin, amo, amare, meaning to love. One of the very best things about citizen science is that it is flexible and can incorporate dimensions of history, literature, art, and direct personal experience. This is our time, this is our place: discovering these dimensions of life is a revelation that helps us co-create a vibrant future. Co-creation is citizen science.
 The World Wildlife Fund’s 2014 Living Planet Report and The State of North America’s Birds Report.