When Ricky Jones and Zach Altman tried to collect water from their assigned section of the Gallatin River last December, they were the only team to return empty-handed.
They’d cross-country skied through three or four feet of snow in Yellowstone National Park, but when they arrived at the river, they couldn’t break through its layers of ice to scoop out water samples. It was negative 30 or 40 degrees, Jones told Earther, and he got a little frostbite on his nose. “That’s when we decided to bail.”
The next time, in March, they were determined to be successful. They snowshoed through the park past bear and mountain lion prints. When they reached the same place in the river, the duo shoveled out a staircase of snow eight feet down the banks and stooped to scoop a liter of water from the river.
Jones and Altman were volunteering with Adventure Scientists, a company that pairs researchers with extreme athletes and outdoor enthusiasts on citizen science projects (Jones was also recently hired as the company’s part-time intern). The Gallatin River project was part of an international campaign to measure microplastics, which are exactly what they sound like—tiny bits of plastic polluting water sources around the globe.
Citizen scientists with a knack for the outdoors are researchers’ new best friends. Gathering rare samples and data points can be expensive, time-consuming, and physically demanding. Thrill-seekers who are already venturing into remote and inaccessible sites might as well pick up a few samples, install a camera trap, or log some data while they’re at it.
“You’re already doing this, so collect some water samples while you’re out there and help out,” Jones, 22, explains.
Jones and Altman first went through a training program to learn how to collect samples: wash their hands to remove any traces of microplastics, dunk the water bottle upside-down into the river in the center of the water column, cap it, and take photos of the bottle with its label to show the location. Once they collected the sample, they uploaded all their info in an app called Liquid—photos, latitude and longitude, weather conditions—that updated as soon as they were back in cell-service range. Then they dropped the bottle of water off at the Adventure Scientists office back in Bozeman.
The global microplastics project is, the company says, the largest and most diverse of its kind. Data from volunteers has informed the Republic of Palau’s decision to create a marine protected area, and has encouraged local businesses to reduce their plastic footprint. Volunteers range from casual surfers to competitors in the Great Pacific Race, a rowing race from California to Hawaii meant to contribute to ocean science and conservation.
“It’s everyone from weekend warriors to incredible expeditions,” Merrill Warren, the operations and development manager, told Earther. “Adventure is relative, and we really find that the outdoor community is uniquely capable of both accessing those really hard-to-reach environments and also just scaling to the level that many of our partners need.”
Those needs can be both varied and specific. Cyclists and runners track roadkill in an ongoing animal-vehicle collision study. Mountain climbers brought back high-altitude snow samples to examine glacier melt. And, in 2016, adventurers collected scat samples in 100 countries—including dung from marmots in Afghanistan, bears in Alaska, and foxes in Nepal—for a Harvard study on antibiotic resistance.
Adventure Scientists is a nonprofit company that sees itself as a kind of “citizen science contractor,” Warren says, connecting researchers and volunteers. But they have very specific parameters for their partnerships. They ask interested scientists if their research was previously data-limited, if there’s a tangible issue they’re looking to address, and whether there’s a unique need for their network of adventurers. If the work could be done by a field tech, Warren says, it’s not the best use of their resources.
“You not only are able to access data that you wouldn’t otherwise obtain, you also engage this extensive network of outdoor enthusiasts,” Warren points out. The network of volunteers, she says, is able to “take what previously seemed to be an unsolvable issue and really make it accessible to those who are working to solve it.” Plus, volunteers can become enthusiastic advocates for these issues.
Citizen science is, of course, nothing new. Researchers have long depended upon the goodwill of amateur enthusiasts to help with data collection and analysis.
But more organizations are capitalizing on volunteers’ considerable outdoors skills.
The Audubon Society boasts the longest-running citizen science project, the Christmas Bird Count, that encourages birders around the country to conduct an annual bird census. Volunteers gather at pre-selected circles 15 miles in diameter, and count the number and type of bird calls they hear. Parks, refuges, and nonprofits also organize regional water monitoring drives, wildlife surveys, and other conservation projects.
Conservation Northwest’s Citizen Wildlife Monitoring Project began by teaching citizen scientists how to install and monitor camera traps. Now, it also manages a snow-tracking program for volunteers to follow wolverines and gray wolves along the I-90 corridor through the Pacific Northwest, monitoring wildlife underpasses and overpasses on the interstate. In addition to documenting the presence of certain species, volunteer trackers are examining whether animals are traveling away from or toward the highway.
“They’re definitely learning the process of wildlife research, and also, they’re being able to really engage and see the wildlife on the landscape,” Laurel Baum, coordinator of the project, told Earther. “Which is something that, as just a hiker or backpacker, you don’t often get to see.”
“It gives a face to the landscape,” Baum says.
Internationally, more communities are responding to conservation challenges by filling in the field gaps with citizen scientists, too.
Jerome Lewis is an anthropologist at University College London and the lead researcher of a project in the Congo Basin to track illegal logging and poaching. The project arms Bayaka pygmies, one of at least eleven different Pygmy groups in Central Africa, with handheld GPS tracking devices, which they use to record any signs of illegal hunting, deforestation, or harmful development in their forests.
More proactive forms of citizen science are arriving “just in time,” Lewis told Nature. As the technology around rugged research—GPS devices, cell phones, apps and databases—becomes more affordable and easier to use, more volunteers are able to roam wilder terrain in the name of research.
“It really makes doing data collection approachable,” says Warren. In addition, easy-to-use tools and apps help researchers monitor the quality of the data their volunteers collect. “We can customize every single project we have, whether that’s collecting scat or picking up water,” Warren says. “That customizability really makes it uniquely helpful tool.”
Jones, for his part, is thrilled to volunteer his time and add to the body of research that scientists might not otherwise be able to collect.
“That’s why this research and this data collection hasn’t been done, because they can’t afford to,” he says. “Citizen science is a really awesome way to conduct research, and just get shit done,” he adds, laughing. “I hope other organizations can follow suit. Because it’s working.”
Next summer, he’ll survey butterflies and wildflowers for an Adventure Scientist project on pollination. Jones, who is a soil science major at Montana State University, says he’d love to make a career combining science and the outdoors.
“This is definitely something that I would be very happy to do for the rest of my life, if given the opportunity,” he says.