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September 2007

I, Citizen Scientist

Learn how you can help combat climate change by researching everything from Alaska's Bering Glacier to tracking pumas in Argentina through citizen scientist programs

As political, scientific, and industrial leaders struggle to deal with the implications of climate change, accurate scientific information is becoming increasingly valuable. We need to know what’s happening to the climate–using hard evidence, not anecdotes–and there aren’t enough trained biologists to do the job. In the United States, the research budgets of some federal agencies, such as NASA, are being cut even as the need for more data grows.

At the same time, many nonscientists are looking to fight global warming and to make sense of the information coming at them in a confusing barrage. The phrase “global warming” paints the phenomenon in the broadest strokes–a planetary occurrence. But it won’t have a uniform impact. The effects will be subtle, varied, and often unexpected.

Volunteer-assisted research has already led to a number of discoveries. Audubon’s CBC and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Project FeederWatch, two studies relying on volunteer data, showed that birds such as the northern cardinal and tufted titmouse have extended their ranges northward in recent decades. (Ornithologists aren’t sure whether this is due to global warming, an increased use of backyard bird feeders, or a combination of both.)

The phrase “citizen scientist” was coined in the 1990s by Rick Bonney, an ornithologist at Cornell University. Bonney, who has worked with volunteers since the mid-1980s, has seen huge growth in the movement in the past few years.

After years of government inaction, individuals and private companies are taking a cue from nonprofits by conducting and funding their own research. Earlier this year, for instance, the London-based bank HSBC announced a five-year, $100 million plan to fund long-term climate change research around the world. The project includes a pledge to send bank employees on citizen science projects–on company time.

Buesching and Newman’s own research provides a vivid example of the kind of long-term volunteer-assisted work needed to cope with climate change. Seventeen years ago, they began studying badgers at the Wytham Woods research site near Oxford. They wanted to know why the Wytham badgers were more sociable than their counterparts in Europe. Buesching and Newman’s long-term data, paired with other scientific records, led them to a startling conclusion: Climate change is producing a boom in badger births. “The population was doubling,” says Newman. “By 1996, we had the highest density of badgers in the world.”

What happened was this: Badgers put on a lot of fat in autumn, when worms, fruit, and seeds are abundant. During a harsh winter, they stay underground and live off that fat reserve. Especially cold winters kill off a lot of badgers; they run out of fat and starve. Female badgers get pregnant in late winter and give birth in the spring. To survive a harsh winter, some will miscarry their fetuses.

With increasingly milder winters, things changed. Fewer badgers starved, because they could come out and forage. More females gave birth. The badger boom wasn’t infinite; climate change also worked to keep a lid on it. More badgers foraging in winter meant that more ended up as road kill. And drier springs meant young cubs had a harder time finding worms to eat. “We ended up seeing two sides of the coin with climate change,” says Newman. “Ultimately, where the population size ends up depends on the balance between those two factors–milder winters and drier summers.”

Citizen scientists were crucial to those badger studies. Over the years, more than 400 amateur researchers helped Buesching and Newman trap and mark small mammals, and track down badgers’ latrines and setts (burrow systems). It’s not a setup that works for every scientist, but Buesching, a sunny Canadian-German, and Newman, a trim Brit, are suited for it. She’s a born teacher, patient and articulate; he’s a joker. “We’ve had all sorts,” says Newman. “Bankers, nurses, students, mechanics. One fellow was a former KGB agent. Sometimes we work with people in drug rehab, who often turn out to be the best volunteers. They’ve been through rough times. Some have seen a best mate overdose, been down on the street with rats. So when you ask them to pull a mouse out of a trap and clip its hair, why, there’s no hesitating. That’s nothing to them.”

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