Citizens Afield

The promise of citizen science lies not only in its contributions to research, but also in its ability to transform our relationships with the natural world.

I WENT TO JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK because I was tired of despair. Not that the deserts of Southern California are particularly uplifting places as of late. During recent droughts, the vacant shells of vegetation-starved tortoises littered brittle ground. Mountain quail and American kestrels fled to higher elevations, and lizards in both low and high deserts stopped breeding. At the southern edge of the Mojave, the crooked limbs of Joshua trees sagged, and their spear-like leaves withered and bleached in the sun.

photo of people in a desert woodland, measuring a Joshua treephoto NPS/Brad SuttonResearchers in Joshua Tree National Park are turning to volunteer scientists for assistance with monitoring plants and animals that may be vulnerable to climate change. In the process, they are upending the norms that have governed the production of science for more than a century.

Still, I agreed to spend a week in the park with 11 students from James Madison University, where I teach science and research writing. I thought their youthful exuberance might kindle some hope in the trajectory of my planet and my country. I expected that seven days in the desert without showers, flush toilets, or cell phone service would be a grounding experience. And using my spring break to collect data on threatened plants seemed like a way to do something (albeit a small something) in response to the paralyzing force that is global climate change.

What I didn’t know, when I headed west, was that the small something I’d do in Joshua Tree was part of a much bigger movement. In the park, researchers and administrators are upending the norms that have governed the production of science for more than a century by using volunteer “citizen scientists” to monitor plants and animals that may be vulnerable to climate change. They know that understanding climate change will require large-scale, long-term research that demands huge amounts of time and funding – resources that are already in short supply, particularly within our national parks. But by inviting amateurs to assist with data collection, scientists and park staff have been able to expand their efforts and commit to decades-long projects. In the process, they’re also educating and inspiring volunteers, who are eager to learn about, support, and advance some of the most important scientific research of our time. From my week in the park, I’m convinced it’s a win-win-win situation for the park, the participants, and the planet.

DURING OUR STUDENT-LED university-sponsored service trip, my group assisted with two long-term monitoring projects. The first is a collaboration between Joshua Tree National Park and the Desert Studies Initiative at the University of California, Riverside – a project that explores the effects of climate change on a variety of plants and animals in the region, including Joshua trees, pinyon pines, ocotillo cacti, lizards, and coyotes. The second project, housed within the park’s Division of Science and Resource Stewardship, aims to document and assess the health and reproductive status of the park’s namesake species.

Christened by Mormon settlers who saw in its branches a prophet’s hands lifted in prayer, the Joshua tree is a source of curiosity for park visitors and concern for desert ecologists. Some scientists have predicted that this giant species of yucca, which can grow more than 20 feet tall and live for 500 years, will vanish from all but a few locations by the century’s end. Currently, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is evaluating whether the Joshua tree should be added to the threatened species list under the Endangered Species Act. If it were, it would become just the second species, following the polar bear, to earn that designation due to climate change.

Joshua Tree National Park encompasses the transition zone between the Mojave Desert and its lowland southern neighbor, the Colorado Desert. Through the late Pleistocene (about 22,000-13,000 years ago), both deserts were populated by Joshua trees. At that time, Shasta ground sloths the size of grizzly bears fed on its fruit and dispersed its seeds widely. Today, the sloths are long gone, the deserts are much warmer, and the range of Joshua trees has drastically contracted northward, restricting it to the Mojave.

When I arrived in Joshua Tree in March 2017, I didn’t know much about citizen science, but I took to it right away. I gladly stood as a boundary marker, GPS in hand, for the plot we surveyed on our first day in the field. As the students scurried around junipers and Joshua trees, measuring their lengths, breadths, and heights and rating their living conditions on a scale of one to five, I absorbed the sensations of sun and dry desert wind and licked dust off my lips. In the days that followed, I took pleasure in counting the terminal branches of Joshua trees and photographing specimens with their identification numbers. All of this unfolded against a surreal backdrop – desert basins hemmed in by rugged mountains, colossal golden boulders, and sparse forests of fantastical trees, limbs akimbo.

It didn’t escape me that my presence in the park was necessitated by the challenges of climate change research. After our trip, I spoke on the phone with ecologist Cameron Barrows, who directs the Desert Studies Initiative and conceived of the first monitoring project we assisted with. Several years ago, Barrows received funding from the FWS to develop a method for monitoring plants and animals in Joshua Tree, but when he sat down with park biologists to sketch out a research plan, he felt troubled. “If we’re going to start a research project that necessarily needs to go a couple of decades or more, how is that going to be sustainable?” he wondered.

Barrows says he knew he wouldn’t be able to find a grant that would last that long, and the National Park Service (NPS) told him they couldn’t depend on their administration to continuously support the research. So, he decided to recruit citizen scientists.

The project, now in its fourth year, has sent out local volunteers, Youth Conservation Corps participants, and college students on “alternative breaks” like ours to collect data (under the supervision of experts) on plants and animals. The Earthwatch Institute, which offers scientific expeditions all over the world, has been instrumental in providing not only a consistent stream of citizen scientists for the project but also funding for the biologists who take them into the field. The data collected by these volunteers is establishing a baseline for species of concern and has provided some preliminary insights into what conditions might enable them to survive a changing climate.

LIKE ACADEMIC RESEARCHERS, national park administrators face budget and personnel constraints, but there are also hurdles that make it particularly difficult to research the impacts of climate change under the auspices of the NPS – including the logistical challenges of managing a major tourist attraction, legal and bureaucratic barriers, and responsibilities that compete with research agendas, like preserving historical and cultural resources, providing educational programming, and maintaining park infrastructure. Because of those hurdles, citizen scientists are, in some cases, a prerequisite for monitoring projects, not just a way to sustain them.

At Joshua Tree, there’s a $60 million maintenance backlog – but the park’s operating budget, allocated annually by Congress, barely surpasses $6 million. The park does get a significant budget boost from visitor entrance fees, and visitation has more than doubled since it became a national park in 1994, with nearly 3 million visitors in 2017 alone. However, those visitors wear out roads and facilities and increase the need for personnel, programming, and amenities. The Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act, signed into law by George W. Bush in 2004, requires that the park use entrance fees for enhancing visitor services or improving visitor facilities. It expressly prohibits using “recreation fees to pay for biological monitoring of threatened and endangered species.”

Joshua Tree’s most recent strategic plan says the park should develop a long-term network of plots for monitoring trends in Joshua tree health and distribution. Still, when Neil Frakes stepped into the role of Vegetation Branch Chief in 2015, he wasn’t sure how to make such a project feasible. Then a high school teacher contacted him about bringing students from his school’s wilderness club to the park in March 2016.

Around that time, Frakes was perusing a master’s thesis written by James Hogan in 1977 that recorded the height classes and density of Joshua trees at 37 plots within the park. He decided to take the wilderness club to one of the “Hogan plots” to gather comparative data. He quickly put together a monitoring protocol and spent three days on site with the students, camping and measuring Joshua tree heights. The project went really well.

photo of people examining lichen on a rockphoto NPS/Jesmira BonoanIn Joshua Tree, which is home to 145 documented species of lichen, volunteers are assisting with efforts to monitor the long-term impacts of climate change on the plants.

Since then, groups of citizen scientists (including mine) have continued assisting park staff in surveying Joshua trees, and Frakes expects to have data on 19 different 500-by-500-meter plots by June. All but three of those plots are based on Hogan’s original survey sites, though Frakes cautions that he’s found methodological and analytical errors in the thesis that limit his ability to compare the 1977 findings to current data. Over the last two years, Frakes has honed the project’s protocol – improving the technique for measuring the height of trees, changing how branches are counted and damage is coded, and clarifying what counts as a sprout of an existing tree versus a new seedling. The goal is to establish a 5-year monitoring cycle for all 19 plots and to select a subset of those plots for assessing flowering and fruit production annually.

The National Park Service’s resource stewardship plan promotes research that will help parks sustain biodiversity and viable ecosystems in the face of climate change. It also lists one of its overarching goals as providing visitors “with opportunities for transformative experiences that educate and inspire.” Citizen science has provided Frakes with a way to achieve both objectives at once. It has also enabled him to obtain funding, volunteers, and institutional support for monitoring efforts that will inform how Joshua Tree manages species and ecosystems affected by climate change.

Frakes says he designed the Joshua tree monitoring project specifically “to give visitors a better experience – which is participating in the scientific process – and maybe that’s a more rewarding experience for a visitor than just driving through the park, stopping at the sites, and taking pictures.”

BECOMING A CITIZEN SCIENTIST certainly was a rewarding experience for me. I relished the chance to go to the field with park staff and scientists and to absorb some of their knowledge. I learned about the yucca moths that co-evolved with Joshua trees – how they lay their eggs in the tree’s blossoms and pollinate them so their caterpillars can later dine on its fibrous, white fruit. I learned the technical term for the barbed spines of cacti (glochids) and the name for the study of plant and animal lifecycles (phenology – not to be confused with the debunked pseudoscience phrenology). I learned how to gently cup the leaves of a creosote bush, breathe into them, and elicit the sweet, metallic tang that scents the desert before a rainstorm.

Still, a worry surfaced in my mind as our data sheets filled: What if citizen science wasn’t good science? If the data we were collecting wasn’t accurate, then it couldn’t help researchers determine how climate change is affecting Joshua trees.

At one point, I caught myself making a mistake while measuring the height of a Joshua tree. I hadn’t locked one level of my telescoping measuring rod into place, and that level had collapsed, compromising my measurement by several inches. I corrected the error but wondered if I’d unknowingly made the same blunder earlier. I also noticed how difficult it was to measure the height of Joshua trees. Even with multiple observers, it was hard to tell when the tip of the rod leveled with the tallest blade on the tree.

Tyler Green, a vegetation and climate change-monitoring specialist who supervised the work we did for the Desert Studies Initiative, assured me that with good training and close supervision, citizen scientists can collect good data. He also explained that the issues I observed in the field are challenges for experts too.

“Vegetation in [the park] is so complex,” he told me. Volunteers provide more than eyes and ears – they’re able to think outside the box. “Joshua trees are weird, and that’s why people like them – but that also makes them super hard to assign numerical values to … Essentially, we’re trying to take a really messy, complex ecosystem and put [it] into a nice, neat, ordered data sheet. Nature, in my opinion, resists that.”

Whether or not citizen scientists can reliably collect high quality data is a question that researchers have studied and debated for years. It’s also a question that preoccupied Cameron Barrows when he started using citizen scientists in Joshua Tree, so he and a team of researchers decided to do a comparative study. They sent two trained biologists to survey reptiles in five plots in the park. Then, within two weeks, they sent a group of citizen scientists under the supervision of one or two biologists to survey the same plots. In the end, the supervised citizen scientist teams were more successful than the two-biologist team. They spotted two to three times as many individual reptiles and about twice as many species. “We get better data using the citizen scientists not because they are superior observers … but because we have more eyes looking, and that makes the difference,” Barrows says.

Because of their larger group size, the citizen scientist teams also have a “beater effect,” forcing more reptiles out into the open. Barrows adds that volunteers contribute more than just eyes and ears; they’re often able to think outside the box and lend fresh perspectives that facilitate “better science.”

“Sometimes we’ll be out there, and I’ll wonder out loud why this lizard is here or not here, and the person will say, ‘What about this? What about that?’ Half the time, they’ve got good ideas and things I wouldn’t have otherwise thought of myself,” he says.

An increasing number of studies have confirmed that citizen scientists can collect data that falls within acceptable ranges of accuracy and reliability in a variety of contexts, from monitoring shark populations in coral reefs to calculating above-ground biomass in forests. That said, citizen scientists’ lack of training or expertise can limit the parameters of a study or even compromise the quality of data in certain situations. For example, one study showed that while citizen scientists can effectively identify common species in ecological communities, they are more likely to misidentify cryptic and rare species than experts. Similarly, the simplified methods used in many citizen science projects may yield data that is less fine-tuned than data collected by experts using more complicated protocols – which means it could fail to capture subtle changes or trends.

Still, many researchers are finding that citizen science offers more possibilities than drawbacks – and that national parks, like Joshua Tree, can provide ideal research sites for their projects. As Lynn Sweet, a research associate at UC Riverside’s Palm Desert Center, explains, identifying research plots and installing equipment is time and resource intensive, so it makes sense to conduct studies in places that won’t be developed or converted for agricultural or other uses. She adds that national parks also manage pollution, fire, and human impacts – which helps eliminate variables that could skew the results of studies.

National parks also attract visitors with interests that readily lend themselves to citizen science projects, and researchers are embracing these visitors as a valuable resource. Bird enthusiasts track migratory hawks in Arcadia National Park each summer and help band songbirds in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Butterfly lovers help document how climate change is affecting species distributions in Washington’s Mount Rainier National Park and North Cascades National Park. And in Yellowstone National Park, visitors share their photos of wolves to assist researchers in studying breeding behaviors and tracking the spread of mange.

The citizen science projects in US national parks comprise a mere fraction of those unfolding across the globe. Through these projects, volunteers are helping generate knowledge in disciplines as diverse as astronomy, public health, and archeology. In Cape Town, South Africa, citizen scientists are helping protect local biodiversity by collecting soil and root samples from plants that may be infected with dangerous microbes. In China’s Hunan province, locals, in collaboration with an environmental nonprofit, are holding government and industry accountable by monitoring and publishing water pollution levels for rivers that supply their drinking water. Citizen science is redefining who creates science and how it happens. Such projects allow concerned citizens to learn about complex problems that affect their lives, their families, and the places they call home, and also to play an active role in calling attention to those problems.

Citizen science is also redefining the boundaries of science – both who creates it and how it happens – thanks to the crowd-sourcing capacities of modern technology. These days, anyone with a camera or a smartphone can contribute to scientific research. For example, the Bionote and iNaturalist apps allow curious people all over the world to upload photos of plants and animals, receive species identifications from experts, and, in the process, provide information about species distributions. Similarly, divers, snorkelers, and paddlers can submit information about shark, ray, and fish sightings to eOceans, an organization that uses citizen science data to analyze marine animal trends. Citizen science has allowed researchers to source and amass data on previously unimaginable scales, and it’s allowed regular people to participate in processes of discovery that have largely been off-limits to non-experts since the Scientific Revolution.

CITIZEN SCIENCE FUELS not only scientific discovery but also social change – a necessary ingredient for slowing and, ideally, undoing the effects of climate change.

“One of the advantages of working with citizen scientists … is that they learn and go back home to their community, and they talk to other people about what they learned and what they did,” says Neil Frakes. “They are ambassadors.”

Tyler Green echoes that sentiment, explaining that as a former Student Conservation Association trail crew member, he knows the powerful impact these experiences can have on people. Green hopes that volunteers’ experiences in Joshua Tree will inspire them to advocate for action on conservation and climate change: “It’s one thing to hear and to intellectually know that something is happening, but when you see it … it becomes more real, and that enables people to act on it.”

photo of young people examining a butterfly net outdoorsphoto NPS/ Kevin BacherAcross the US, researchers are embracing park visitors as a valuable resource. In Mount Rainier National Park, for example, volunteers assist park biologists in monitoring butterfly numbers and tracking flowering plant distributions.

The earlier people get involved in citizen science, the better, says Lynn Sweet, who supervises volunteer teams for the Desert Studies Initiative project. “Across the country, a lot of students aren’t getting access to natural areas,” she says. “The better we can do at exposing kids to nature … I think that will ensure that people care, and if people care, they’ll come out and help out.”

The idea that early experiences in nature influence attitudes toward the environment, promote a conservation ethic, and encourage behaviors like recycling and volunteering has been supported by research. Even so, at the conclusion of our week in Joshua Tree, I had doubts about the impression the trip had left on the students.

Fieldwork is sometimes monotonous. It doesn’t have the emotional appeal that certain types of humanitarian projects do. And the data we collected was just a drop in the bucket of long-term research needed to understand climate change in the Mojave and Colorado Deserts. There was no final product to step back and admire, no satisfying sense of completion. I wondered: Without such gratification, would the students feel their efforts mattered? Would they be able to explain the value of citizen science to friends and family? Would they sign up for similar projects in the future?

It didn’t help that we’d been beset by unanticipated challenges. A flat tire and spotty cell phone service cost us a half-day of work. Many students were unprepared for the extreme conditions in the park. Their rented sleeping bags and cotton sweatshirts were no match for 20-degree Fahrenheit nighttime temperatures, and the black leggings worn by half the group amplified the afternoon heat and did little to protect against prickly plants. One student suffered a panic attack during a windstorm that flung sand into our eyes, flattened our tents, and whisked an aluminum pot (never to be seen again) into the crags surrounding our campsite. Another succumbed to pink eye, and yet another to hyponatremia (a sodium deficiency caused, in this case, by drinking too much water on an empty stomach). Such is the nature of fieldwork, but I worried that those problems detracted from their experiences.

Our minor disasters also interfered with our plans to have a daily time of reflection – and the loud music and idle chatter that dominated our many hours in the van indicated (to me, at least) a lack of interest in contemplating the desert or the social, political, and natural forces that threaten it. My heart sank when I learned that the trip readers I’d created – filled with the thought-provoking words of Robin Wall-Kimmerer, Rebecca Solnit, and Edward Abbey – somehow wound up in a dumpster in Redlands, California near the end of the trip.

Then, about a week after our return, Hope Barnstead, a college senior who had been on the trip, showed up in my office. She’d just learned about an AmeriCorps position that would allow her to spend six months doing trail maintenance and preservation work in the deserts of Utah. Excited by that possibility, she wanted my input about whether or not she should abandon her plan to move to New York City after graduating. I told her there was no harm in applying. Later, after she’d interviewed for and accepted the position, she said she wouldn’t have found the courage to do so were it not for our time in Joshua Tree.

“I think Neil [Frakes] is the one who said at the beginning, ‘You will never look at a Joshua tree the same way again,” Barnstead said. “And I [thought], ‘Like, I’ll be sick of it?’ Just measuring a tree sounds boring on paper, but at the end, I remember leaving the park and feeling like, ‘It is now my duty to protect this tree’ … You break that barrier of ‘This is a tree, and I’m a human being.’”

There were other encouraging signs that suggested the trip had struck a deeper chord than I’d thought. A handful of group members gathered for a screening of the climate change documentary Before the Flood. A student asked me to send her a copy of the trip reader. Another told me about her plans to write about citizen science for her environmental humanities term paper. When I posted an invitation on Facebook asking for friends to accompany me to the People’s Climate March in Washington, DC in April, Julie Gentry, a student from our group, decided to tag along.

On the bus ride home from the march, we discussed what our time in Joshua Tree had meant to us. Gentry said that living in the desert for a week forced her to confront how much she consumes in her day-to-day life. She said that since the trip, “I’m taking less showers, and I’m not buying things. I’m trying to donate things that I have to thrift stores … I want to live a simpler life because of [the trip].”

I’VE OFTEN WONDERED how anyone can deny that humans have contributed to climate change, given the abundance of scientific evidence that testifies to our influence. I’ve wondered, too, at my own unwillingness to act – my reluctance to curb my consumption, my refusal to give up meat, my attachments to air conditioning, summer vacations, and two-day shipping. How do you persuade someone to change – not just their mind, but their way of life – especially when that someone is you?

Citizen science and modern technology have allowed regular people to participate in processes of discovery that have been off-limits to non-experts for centuries. Citizen science and modern technology have allowed regular people to participate in processes of discovery that have been off-limits to non-experts for centuries. Photo by Unsplash / Mohamed Lammah.

Science alone clearly isn’t enough. That hockey stick graph showing the rapid rise in our planet’s surface temperatures, those colorful maps displaying droughts, the numbers testifying to the warming, rising, and acidifying of our seas – none of those have silenced the deniers or inspired the rest of us to the kind of collective action needed to change course.

The promise of citizen science lies not only in its ability to expand the boundaries of what we know but also in its ability to beget stories, to transform the narratives people tell about the earth they inhabit and their place in it. Whether an intensive, short-term effort in a far-off place or a local, long-term commitment to collecting data, citizen science offers the opportunity to make climate change (and the science of climate change) part of our stories. The accumulating greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, the droughts that have plagued the southwestern United States, the decline of certain desert plants – those aren’t just ideas for me or the students who traveled with me to Joshua Tree. They are hitched to the marvel of the sun rising over a plane of Joshua trees, to friendships forged over measuring tapes and data sheets, to conversations and grilled cheeses shared around a campfire. And, yes, driving to urgent care and losing gear to a windstorm – those are there too. What matters is this: That incredible place, the living things that inhabit it, and the people who protect it belong to my story, and I belong to theirs.

Following my time in Joshua Tree, I decided to give up air travel for the summer, resisting the siren song of distant mountains. I know that decision was somehow caught up in the Joshua trees I touched and admired, in the sand that dusted my eyelashes and warmed beneath my sleeping body, and in the people who shared their love of the desert with me. My choice to stay home for the summer, Gentry’s choice to take fewer showers, Barnstead’s choice to put her dream of moving to New York City on hold – none of those single decisions is going to reverse the course of climate change. But if a week of measuring plants can inspire such changes, just imagine what might be possible if citizen science were to become a standard component of science education, a customary experience for national park visitors, or a regular pastime parents and children practiced in backyards and city parks.

Through citizen science, we have the opportunity to transform our personal stories and the communal story of our planet, to act both individually and collectively. Through citizen science, we can begin unraveling this catastrophe of our own making.

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