Three Generations of Earthwatch Volunteers, Three Generations of Memories

By Chip Martin, Earthwatch Volunteer

Chip Martin is the third generation in his family to travel with Earthwatch. Collectively, they have traveled to Hawaii, Australia, Idaho, and Belize, where Chip participated in his first expedition, Shark Conservation in Belize. Chip shares memories from his family’s time in the field.


Chip during the Earthwatch expedition Shark Conservation in Belize.

Chip during the Earthwatch expedition Shark Conservation in Belize.

I am a third-generation Earthwatch volunteer. My grandmother found and planned the first trip in 1982, not knowing that many more would follow over the next three decades, spanning three generations of her family. Thirty-five years after the first trip, I was finally able to go on one of my own this year. After my expedition, I was still the same person, but I was somehow different. My time spent on that expedition helped me to decide what I wanted to do later in my life. It helped me decide to study environmental engineering.

The second Earthwatch trip was to a ranch outside Broken Hill, in New South Wales, Australia in 1990. My grandparents, my mother, and her two brothers went on the trip. My grandpa, Walter Gilges, describes why they went: “It was just something useful to do with the family. We could make a difference, learn about a new place and meet wonderful people,” he recalls.

The objective of the trip was to study the effect of rainfall in arid zones on the competition between sheep and kangaroo populations. The volunteers would assist the scientists in many tasks, including collecting vegetation samples, catching kangaroos to be weighed, measured, and tagged, and tracking kangaroo movement through triangulation of radio signals on collared individuals. My grandpa has always been a hands-on type of person, and, as he told me, his favorite part of the expedition was helping to mend fences in the outback. “What I do remember is the Australian Customs Officer who asked ‘Why did you come here to study those pests?’”

Chip's mother, Julie, during an expedition in Australia studying the population of kangaroos.In 1997, my grandparents went back to Australia for their third expedition. This time they ventured to Useless Loop in Western Australia. The objective of this expedition was to learn how to keep feral cats and foxes out of a prong (peninsula) near Shark Bay, Australia in order to protect endangered marsupials, specifically bandicoots and bettongs. “We would go out at night, with only flashlights, driving in the pitch dark along the fence trying to spot the foxes and cats that were approaching the fence,” my Grandpa says.

My Grandpa’s last Earthwatch trip was to Idaho in 2008 to study the impact of sheep on sagebrush (an invasive plant species). As he remembers, he chose this particular trip because he enjoyed building fences in Australia so much that he wanted to do something like it again.

Finally, I went on my own Earthwatch expedition this past summer, 2017, to South Water Caye, Belize – a small island 14 miles off the coast of Belize. The objective of the project, Shark Conservation in Belize, was to study how shark and ray populations are affected by a No-Fishing zone. Every morning we would get up at 8 a.m. to get to breakfast on time. Then, by 9a.m., we would be at the dock cutting up bait for the long-lines or BRUVS (Baited Remote Underwater Camera).

The BRUVS were dropped outside the barrier reef to a depth of 80 feet to record how many sharks were in the area, and the long-lines were placed inside the barrier reef to catch nurse sharks and stingrays. We went on a snorkel trip almost every day to various locations along the barrier reef, some of which were places that only the locals knew about, such as a sinkhole and a reef with corals of all colors.

The reason I chose to go on this particular trip was the ocean. I’ve always loved the ocean and I’m still fascinated by everything that lives in it. I went into this trip just wanting to have fun by the water while working with sharks. I later realized that I really chose the trip because I wanted to make a difference and help do something that would be beneficial to the Earth. I came out of this trip having learned more about shark conservation issues than I had ever thought possible.

My Earthwatch experience was a once in a lifetime trip that I’m very glad to have been a part of.

From Boston to Playa Grande, Costa Rica – A Mission to Conserve the Eastern Pacific Leatherback

A leatherback sea turtle on the shores of Playa Grande. (Photo: Carrie Lederer)

A leatherback sea turtle on the shores of Playa Grande. (Photo: Carrie Lederer)

By Laura St. Andrews, Costa Rican Sea Turtles Field Team Leader

Laura measuring a sea turtle hatchling.

Laura measuring a sea turtle hatchling.

Laura’s passion for sea turtle conservation brought her from Earthwatch headquarters in Boston to Costa Rica, where she now works as field manager for The Leatherback Trust. She shares her first encounter with a sea turtle and where that experience has led her since then.

After graduating from college, I joined the Earthwatch team back in 2014. I was so excited to work for an organization that values supporting robust data collection and makes science not only accessible, but also changes mindsets to make conservation a part of volunteers’ lives long after they come back from the field. Getting in the field with Earthwatch is truly an incomparable experience for any curious, adventurous spirit. For over two years, I was lucky enough to be a part of an organization with dedicated staff around the world, working to make our planet a more biologically diverse, healthy, and beautiful place for every critter, plant, and organism.

Earthwatch volunteers patrol the beach of La Playa Grande.

Earthwatch volunteers patrol the beach of Playa Grande.

As an Earthwatch staff member, I was also able to go to El Parque Nacional Marino Las Baulas in Playa Grande, Costa Rica for nine days as a volunteer. It was here that a light switch turned on for me and life as I knew it would never be the same. I saw my first leatherback sea turtle and heard the story of their rapid, alarming decline. In just two decades, poaching combined with unregulated fisheries in the Pacific have effectively wiped out generations of an amazing keystone species. Now, the Eastern Pacific leatherback is the most endangered population of sea turtles in the world. A healthy pulse of our oceans affects all ecological corners of the earth – regardless of their proximity to the water. Sea turtles are major contributors to the strength of that healthy pulse. Patrolling the beaches of Playa Grande was a privilege, and after learning the critically endangered leatherback’s story, I wanted to put all of my energy into keeping these animals on our planet, restoring their populations to a healthy status.

Laura studies a nesting leatherback sea turtle as two Earthwatch volunteers look on. (Photo: Carrie Lederer)

Laura studies a nesting leatherback sea turtle as two Earthwatch volunteers look on. (Photo: Carrie Lederer)

The next fielding season, I came back to Playa Grande as a field biologist. Leaving Earthwatch was bittersweet as I knew I’d miss the work and team, but getting a chance to go back to the largest nesting beach for the Eastern Pacific leatherback in Costa Rica was a real dream come true. And, I loved it – every rewarding, exhausting night and day.

The more that I learned as a field biologist and from the team of field biologists that I worked with, the more passionate I became in my mission to protect these animals. So, when the field season in Playa Grande finished, with the lowest recorded number of nesting Eastern Pacific leatherbacks, I was as motivated as ever to continue the pursuit to protect our sea turtles and oceans. I set out to South Padre Island, Texas to learn more about different species and conservation methodologies with Sea Turtle, Inc.

While in Texas, I was ecstatic to learn that I had the opportunity to go back to Playa Grande the following season as the field team leader. Now, I am lucky enough to work every day with an incredibly dedicated and hard-working group of field biologists. We are really looking forward to meeting our Earthwatch volunteers this season!

 

With the help of dedicated citizen scientists from all over the world, we are able to work within a national park that is reserved for only biologists and park rangers at night. It is a remarkably special experience and one that I hope many volunteers will chose to contribute to and be changed as much as I have been.

I hope that you will join both myself and the skilled, gregarious team of biologists down here in Playa Grande on the Earthwatch expedition Costa Rican Sea Turtles!

How Two Weeks in Belize (Honestly) Changed my Life

Chapman - Credit Lisa Wester (52)

Ryan Saraie

Ryan Saraie

By Ryan Saraie, Earthwatch Ignite Fellow 2013

In July 2013, Ryan participated on the expedition Shark Conservation in Belize as part of the Earthwatch Ignite Fellowship Program. Having endured the challenges of field research, mosquitoes, and inconsistent weather patterns, he lives to tell his tale.


Kneeling on a boat in the middle of the ocean, with the nearest patch of land barely in sight, I was instructed by the researchers leading the expedition to tag the shark we recently captured. It was just measured, but we needed to label it to be able to track it and build on the data we collected. Although I was nervous about tagging the shark, I was able to overcome my fears and get the job done.

I didn’t know that I would potentially be engaging with animals in such a direct manner when I applied to the Earthwatch Ignite summer program. In fact, I didn’t know what I would be doing at all. My biology teacher the preceding academic year told our class that the opportunity was a life-changing experience and that we should apply. I had a mostly open summer, and a two-week research expedition sounded amazing, so I applied. I am still baffled that a panel of experienced professionals read through my application and decided that I deserved this fellowship.

Sharks swimming in the waters off the coast of South Water Caye.

Sharks swimming in the waters off the coast of South Water Caye.

The expedition was incredible. Two weeks of conservation-based marine research studying the effects of recently passed government regulations that limited the types and number of sharks that could be fished. Led by a doctoral candidate from SUNY-Stony Brook, Jasmine Valentin-Albanese, our cohort of eight students collected data from sharks and other fish to determine the effects of said regulations. In addition to Jasmine, we teamed with Debbie Hadley, our Earthwatch facilitator who flew over with us to Belize, and Esther Kang, an employee from the Durfee Foundation – the organization who supports the Ignite program. Two researchers native to Belize – Bert and Norlan – guided us in the specifics of our daily work.

During our two weeks, we were not on the mainland, but on a small island named South Water Caye. It held a research center and a small resort. While it was a very small community, quite a few people lived there, living off of what the island has to offer.

The research consisted of collecting data from fish and examining video footage of marine ecosystems. When engaging with fish, we measured small groupers and larger sharks. In both cases, we gathered data such as fin length, fish length, and fish width. The smaller fish that fishermen from the island caught earlier would be cooked and served as food after being measured, proving useful for research and for meals. We also captured sharks in order to quickly take measurements and collect samples before releasing them.

A researcher sets up a baited remote underwater video (BRUV) camera.

A researcher sets up a baited remote underwater video (BRUV) camera.

The video-based research consisted of watching footage of marine fish populations. The videos were recorded by underwater devices known as BRUVs (Baited Remote Underwater Video). When watching these videos, we were looking for sharks and recording how many we identified.

I went through a full range of emotions during this expedition. I missed my family a lot. Interacting with sharks and other fish types was new to me, but the work was enjoyable and exciting. Above everything else, I gained interest in the field of environmental conservation. The research we were a part of was important, and it felt good to be involved in a project that would support sharks and the Belizean ecosystem. Earthwatch certainly helped cement my long-term interests in protecting the environment.

I am currently studying Environmental Economics & Policy at UC Berkeley. I am involved in a few student organizations dedicated to environmental responsibility, including our student government’s Sustainability Club. I am interested in pursuing a career in environmental policy. These details would probably be completely different had I chosen not to participate in the Earthwatch program.

I found the direction where I wanted to take my life, and continue to follow it to this day. Those two weeks were truly eye-opening; I won’t forget them any time soon.

Safety in the Storm

By Dianna Bell, Earthwatch Multimedia Coordinator

This summer ushered in a series of natural disasters, which are currently still ravaging parts of the world. From hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, to earthquakes in Mexico, to wildfires in northwestern North America – Earthwatch field sites have been directly impacted by these destructive events. The research we conduct is all the more relevant in light of major changes that are impacting wildlife and ecosystems in these regions, but the safety and welfare of our field teams is always a priority. Through our rigorous risk management process and culture of safety, we continue to weather these storms.

This week, I spoke to Earthwatch’s Chief Scientist Cristina Eisenberg and Director of Program Delivery Heather Pruiksma who shared insights on how Earthwatch manages incidents in the field. In September, a team fielding on Cristina’s project Restoring Fire, Wolves, and Bison to the Canadian Rockies had to be evacuated due to encroaching wildfires, but throughout the experience, Cristina said both she and the volunteers felt entirely supported by the proactive assistance Earthwatch provided.

Fire ecologist and firefighter Jon Trapp speaks with Earthwatch volunteers about the wildfires. (Photo: Stephen Hart)

Fire ecologist and firefighter Jon Trapp speaks with Earthwatch volunteers about the wildfires. (Photo: Stephen Hart)


As a researcher and fire ecologist, what was it like for you when the fires started encroaching on your project site? What did you do to mitigate the risks?

Cristina: Fire season typically begins around middle to end July and then it goes until it snows. So I started looking at all the fires in the area and started tracking them in early July.

I check the fires almost every day. If there’s a big windstorm and humidity plummets, then you get something called a blowup. So I checked the fire that was burning to the northwest of our field site in Waterton Lakes National Park, about 40 miles away. I’d been tracking that fire since it began around the third week in August and it was tiny – about 100 acres. Then I tracked it as it got to be almost 1,000 acres, around September 3rd.  

Forty miles, two big mountain ranges, and two big lakes stood between our field site and that fire. So the odds of it reaching us were minimal. This assessment was verified by the park managers as well as a PhD student studying with me who has been a wild land firefighter for many years.

The volunteers arrived on September 4th. The next day, the fire that had been so far away started heading toward Alberta. The park chief of science came over that night to speak with us and said that while it’s highly unlikely the fire would reach us, she recommended we proactively evacuate slightly in advance of a mandatory evacuation. So we voluntarily packed everything up and post evacuation, we safely collected critically important data well away from the fire zone.

I communicated with our Earthwatch staff every day about our status. We also had to be further evacuated a second time, and throughout it all, Heather was awesome. Night or day, even at 6 in the morning, she always took my call.


How do you assess risks?

Heather: Cristina assessed the situation every day to monitor where the fire was, what the fire intensity was, what the fire weather was, how the fire was behaving, what the reports were on that, and what the predictions were. And that’s the exact same kind of thing we’re always doing with hurricane predictions and other events. So when something like this is approaching and people know about it, there’s a certain amount of pre-planning that we can do. We can’t fix the wildfire, we can’t fix the hurricane, but we can assess its status and stay up-to-date on the experts’ predictions and what those potential impacts are going to be on an upcoming team.

What are the protocols we have in place to deal with events like this?

Heather: When we’re bringing on a new project in an area where there’s any risk of wildfires, hurricanes, earthquakes, or other event, we develop a detailed “threat assessment.” These assessments, which identify any potential hazards, are conducted for all of the countries and regions in which we operate. They help us to determine whether we’re going to operate in a country in the first place, but also helps direct the conversations we’re going to have with scientists when we’re preparing the risk assessment for their project in that country or region.

Risk assessments dive more deeply into the specifics of the research sites, the research activities, and the times of year teams will be fielding. As part of this process, we make agreements with the scientists in the form of emergency response plans on what to do should emergencies such as hurricanes arise in the field. We also have plans in place for when something arises unexpectedly while a team’s in the field so that the scientists, Earthwatch staff, and the volunteers have access to the same information about our emergency providers, how to reach Earthwatch (day or night), how to use the emergency radios, details on evacuation routes, who conducts the evacuations, and so on.

Cristina, on the right, in the field with Earthwatch Senior Program Manager Caroline Dunn. (Photo: Stephen Hart)

Cristina, on the right, in the field with Earthwatch Senior Program Manager Caroline Dunn. (Photo: Stephen Hart)

How do you prepare for something like an earthquake, which is almost impossible to predict?

Heather: That’s a lot harder because like you said, you can’t predict them. They happen when they happen, but we have plans in place in order to respond to them quickly and effectively. In the case of the Mexico City earthquake, there were no teams in the field, but we did end up cancelling an upcoming team so as not to interfere with recovery efforts.

For example, during a volcano project in Costa Rica several years ago, an earthquake occurred while a team was in the field. However, we had prepared the scientist on how to respond to this type of event, including finding a safe place to stay and maintaining a calm leadership presence. The scientist, in turn, had prepared the volunteers on how to behave in the event of a problem in the field as part of the initial safety briefing at the start of the team. The scientist did a great job of following the response plan and making sure everyone was safe and comfortable, and we were able to support their incident response from headquarters. There were no injuries and everyone returned home happy and healthy.    

Warren Stortroen – 100 Cheers for an Extraordinary Volunteer!

After a 40-year career spent working in an office, Warren Stortroen decided to give back and travel the world while doing so. Over the past 22 years, Warren has spent 1,089 days collecting critical environmental and archaeological data across 67 projects in nearly 30 countries around the world. This summer, he hit his 100th Earthwatch expedition!

Warren, on right, celebrates his 100th expedition with Dr. Susan Ryan, lead scientist of the project Uncovering the Mysteries of Colorado's Pueblo Communities.

Warren, on right, celebrates his 100th expedition with Dr. Susan Ryan, lead scientist of the project Uncovering the Mysteries of Colorado’s Pueblo Communities.

Minnesota native Warren Stortroen worked in an office as an insurance claims manager for nearly 40 years. While he rarely traveled during his professional life, he spent considerable time planning for his retirement adventures. Warren joined his first Earthwatch expedition in 1996, studying bird species in Costa Rica. Since then, he’s traveled to the Peruvian Amazon, Australia’s Kangaroo Island, the Galapagos, and well beyond— sometimes visiting the same project two or three times. As the number of his Earthwatch expeditions has increased over the years, his reputation has been preceding him to the field sites. Other volunteers feel honored to be on the same research team as him. There’s even a fan club named the “Warren-ites.” In September 2017, Warren hit a major milestone: he joined his 100th expedition at the Crow Canyon archaeology site in southwest Colorado.

It’s incredible what Warren has accomplished over the past 20 years. At age 85, he continues to work alongside teens and millennials tracking killer whales in Iceland, hiking through the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and exploring an active volcano in Nicaragua. Warren is an inspiration—reminding us, time and again, of the importance of stepping up to the challenge.

And the quotes from scientists and his fellow volunteers speak to the impact Warren has had across the globe he has so well traveled.


“Crow Canyon Archaeological Center started its Earthwatch partnership in 2013. One of our first participants was Warren Stortroen. While it was Crow Canyon’s first [Earthwatch expedition], Warren was already a seasoned veteran with experience from around the world, including archaeology! Warren is such a delight every week he works with us. Participants and staff love flipping through his photo albums and listening to his stories. He guides and inspires the other [Earthwatch] citizen scientists as well as the Crow Canyon staff.” – From the staff at Crow Canyon Archaeological Center

“He has always been a pleasure to work with: the smile of contentment never leaves his face, and he is appreciative, interested in the work and careful to get it right. An ideal Earthwatch volunteer; long may he continue.” – Dr. John Murray, volcanologist on the expedition Exploring an Active Volcano in Nicaragua

“My enduring memory of Warren was when we were surveying on the Masaya volcano crater rim in February 2017 – his 96th expedition, my first! We came across some paw prints in the (warm) ash, which with his naturally infectious enthusiasm and engaging erudition, classified them as feline and likely to be made by an ocelot. This being my first such encounter, I couldn’t contain my excitement as we followed them to a cacophony of prints around its burrow – where Warren calmly rounded-off this unprecedented experience for me with a rich insight to the behaviour of ocelots. Thank you, Warren, for being such a gentleman and a scholar – I hope you will continue to enjoy every one of your multitude of Earthwatch memories as much as I will do of mine with you.” – Stephen Middleton, Exploring an Active Volcano in Nicaragua

Warren on the Earthwatch expedition Exploring an Active Volcano in Nicaragua.

Warren on the Earthwatch expedition Exploring an Active Volcano in Nicaragua.


“I remember Warren as a particularly valued member of the team because he set an example to all of us, not just the other volunteers but also the staff. This was because this was our first Earthwatch field season and we were a little anxious and stressed to make sure it would succeed, but Warren was experienced, calm and unflappable. He was absolutely reliable and worked really hard to make the work a success. We all learned from Warren that we should keep calm, adapt to situations and keep working hard, and we would get the job done.” – Dr. Christopher Joyce, lead scientist on the expedition Baltic Island Wetlands and Birds

“I had heard about Warren long before I met him, but I did meet him, surveying meadows in California. He was a joy! …His stories of his many expeditions (only 94 or so back then) were fascinating – he gave me so many ideas of expeditions to go on! A great citizen scientist and a delightful person.” – Brenda Sullivan, Restoring Meadows in the Sierra Nevada Mountains


Warren during the Earthwatch expedition Saving Joshua Tree's Desert Species.

Warren during the Earthwatch expedition Saving Joshua Tree’s Desert Species.

Thank you, Warren!

Fostering a Global Community of Earthwatch Ambassadors

By Kyle Gaw, Earthwatch Digital Marketing Manager

Earthwatch advocates come from near and far to support our mission to unite citizens with scientists. Here, we highlight some of the personal motivations that are driving individuals to get involved.

I recently spoke to a friend about how an iceberg roughly the size of Delaware had broken free from Antarctica. We started to lament the seemingly inevitable, and extremely complex, consequences of climate change. At one point my friend turned to me and said, “I’m not a scientist. So honestly, what can I even do at this point?”

For me, my friend’s statement encapsulated the importance of Earthwatch’s mission to propagate the benefits of citizen science. It is not just scientists’ responsibility to study and protect the planet; the duty belongs to everyone. The world needs advocates for scientific research more than ever before.

We launched the Earthwatch Ambassador Program a little over a year ago with the goal of fostering a community of Earthwatch advocates. We wanted to offer a vessel for like-minded, concerned citizens to unite over a common cause: the desire to improve our planet. We’ve seen tremendous growth in the short time that the program has been running. The program is growing consistently thanks to the work of our dedicated ambassadors.

Our global network is comprised of people from every nook and cranny of the planet – from the U.S. to Australia to Mexico to Kenya, and beyond.

The reach of the program has been inspiring for us to witness. In fact, we’re proud to say that we have Earthwatch Ambassadors on every continent aside from Antarctica. (Although, we are tossing around the idea of making one lucky penguin an honorary member just to check off every continent.)

These concerned individuals come to Earthwatch with different perspectives of the environmental issues occurring in their respective parts of the globe. For many, the motivation to join Earthwatch’s Ambassador Program stems from a desire to be a part of positive change or, as one member from Trinidad and Tobago put it when asked what their motivation was for joining the program: I guess it’s being part of a greater cause and being able to make a positive impact somewhere around the world.

Many of our Ambassador Program members come to us with the hope of creating positive change on a global scale. For some, the desire to make a positive impact stems from the immediate issues that they see threatening their own environment. As one Australian Ambassador said, The effects of climate change are being felt in Australia through more extreme weather patterns. Big industries and urban development continue to put significant pressures on the environment and its flora and fauna systems, and in many cases they are abetted by government. These issues are echoed around the world…

The professional backgrounds of our Ambassador Program members have shed light on just how diverse participants are. One Ambassador from England highlighted this nicely: I work in sales and marketing and do not have a science background. Participating in Earthwatch projects makes me feel that I am helping, albeit in a small way, towards the conservation of our planet. By being an Earthwatch Ambassador, I want to be able to reassure others like me that it is possible to be a citizen scientist and to make a difference to the world.

We’re always thrilled to see former volunteers recruiting their friends and family members to join them in the field. One thing that we want to see all past team members do is to leverage their own experiences in the field to enrich their lives and the lives of others around them. We love hearing about the creative ways that volunteers have used their experiences in the field to their advantage in their day-to-day lives.

One teacher from the United States is taking their experience in the field and using it to encourage the next generation to become advocates for quality scientific research. I’m hoping the Ambassador Program will give me a platform to draw more of my own students into the program. While our district does a great job of sending several teachers on Earthwatch expeditions every year, I feel Earthwatch’s impact would be magnified through the experience of students. This is particularly true of students like my own juniors and seniors in physics, who are mostly college-bound but have not made up their mind about a field of study. At their impressionable age, a meaningful experience with environmental science research could give them the impetus to realign their future study plans.

It’s encouraging to learn how people from every part of the globe are using their experiences with Earthwatch to make the world a better place. No matter the personal motivations that drive people to join the Ambassador community, it’s clear that Ambassador Program members can rally around the shared vision for a better planet. We’re thrilled to see this program thriving and look forward to the watch it continue to evolve.


If you’re ready to join the Ambassador community or would like some more information, visit Earthwatch’s Ambassador Program page.

On the Path to Becoming a Female STEM Role Model in Acadia

By Sophia Ludtke, Spring Power & Gas Fellow

This summer, through a sponsorship with Spring Power & Gas, high schooler Sophia Ludtke traveled to Maine to take part on the Earthwatch expedition Climate Change: Sea to Trees at Acadia National Park. Sophia shares her experience from her time in the field.


Sophia conducting field work in Acadia National Park.

Sophia conducting field work in Acadia National Park.

Through the very generous sponsorship of Spring Power & Gas, I was given the opportunity to join 12 other high school students in Acadia National Park this summer to examine how climate change is impacting the biodiversity in this region of Maine. From a young age, I have loved both science and the outdoors, but before this trip, I never could have imagined how these two interests could be combined in such an exciting way. By participating in research conducted outdoors in the field through the work of citizen scientists and professionals alike, I now know how accessible science can be.

Specifically, we were looking at how warming temperatures are impacting bird migration and fruit availability––and the overlap between the two. The scientists leading this research hypothesize that birds seeking cool temperatures are migrating further north during the winter, thus passing over Acadia during their return flight south later in the season. Meanwhile, warmer temperatures, scientists speculate, are causing fruit to bloom earlier in the season. If both of these hypotheses are true, this timing mismatch could deprive birds of the fuel they need for their long migration, while also depriving the plants of the fruit consumers they rely on to spread their seeds.

As our leading scientist Dr. Feldman explained, this interaction is a microcosm for what is happening around the globe. We know that temperatures are rising, but we don’t know exactly how this may affect our planet’s animals, plants, and people. While, at times, climate change can seem like a huge issue, too big for one individual to tackle, this experience helped shift my perspective, allowing me to recognize the impact small contributions can have. From biology driven research, like what we were doing in Acadia, to an engineering innovation, to an environmentally-conscious policy or law, to a powerful piece of artwork –– it is uplifting to know there are many ways in which people are already fighting for a healthier planet.

While I still don’t know exactly what role I may play, this experience reaffirmed my desire to be a part of the fight.

This experience also immersed me in the whole scientific process and made me realize that it’s something I admire and identify with. Each day in the field was a little different: we’d trek through thick brush to set up 1 meter by 2 meter plots; we’d crouch down on intertidal rocks in search of invertebrates; we’d fill red and yellow cups with water in hopes of catching insects; we’d count the number of huckleberries in each of our plots. At times, the work was challenging, but I truly felt like the data we were collecting could be used to discover something new, something of importance on a global scale.

To be working side by side with a professional scientist at such a young age was incredibly empowering.

One highlight of the week was a presentation given by a female scientist conducting research similar to what we were doing. She described her work, answered questions, and asked us about our interests. Even though female role models in STEM abound in movies, books, articles, etc., it was so inspirational to get to talk to a female scientist in person. It made me realize that someday I could be like her, getting to present research I was passionate about to a new generation of aspiring female scientists.

My week in Acadia flew by, and if I could return, I would do so in a heartbeat.

I miss the breathtaking scenery. It was almost magical to look up at the stars in the pure midnight sky. Spending a week feeling this connected to nature reaffirmed the importance of preserving our planet’s natural beauty for future generations to enjoy.

I miss the science. From counting caterpillars, to looking through microscopes, to searching for hermit crabs, it was a once in a lifetime experience to be immersed in this type of learning environment. I feel as if I’ve found a field – environmental science – that I really identify with and may want to pursue down the road.

But, most of all, I miss the people. We all bonded so much, whether counting huckleberries or looking up at the magical night sky. I know that we will all keep in touch for years to come.

I am so thankful to have had this incredible experience, and I hope many more students down the road get to enjoy this same life-changing experience.


To learn more about this expedition, visit our website – Climate Change: Sea to Trees at Acadia National Park.

Hiking, Song Birds, and Finding a Path to Environmentalism through Earthwatch

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By Judith Santano, Ignite Fellow 2013 and Earthwatch Educator Program Intern

Judith Santano

Judith Santano

The first time I can remember falling in love with the earth was when I went to Wyoming to study songbirds for two weeks. I can remember being mesmerized by everything around me and was struggling to take it all in. I couldn’t believe that the world was so green and that the air was so clean. I was even having trouble breathing because the air was so smog free. Every day I woke up to the sound of countless birds and deer outside my cabin. That trip was full of many firsts for me. From hiking, seeing a bear, learning bird calls, and seeing the Milky Way, to just being away from home. Each day was a new adventure full of excitement, laughter, learning, intellectual and emotional growth, and pure, unadulterated happiness.

To this day, nothing has changed my life as radically as those two weeks did.

I had always been the nerdy kid who loved science, but being on this trip was like flipping a switch in terms of environmentalism. Being from L.A., I had no prior experience being immersed in nature like that. I never really knew what the environment entailed, or that it was at risk of being destroyed. After being in the middle of it, I realized how important and necessary it was to care for the environment. This trip opened my eyes to a whole new world and showed me that there was more than one way to love science. Although I didn’t completely know it when I was 15, Earthwatch would influence the path I would take in my studies, career, and life.

 

The scientific research I was able to participate in was not what I was expecting at all. Our days consisted of hiking across rivers and through visible clouds of pollen to find songbirds that most people wouldn’t usually slow down to appreciate. We banded songbirds and kept track of their nests in order to monitor changes in their populations. I remember I was in disbelief when our scientist told us that the data we were collecting was going into a national database that has existed for decades. It felt so cool to be a part of something so significant and bigger than just our team. Having to patiently observe these beautiful creatures that I had previously taken for granted was such an eye opening experience. It taught me to see the importance of everything around me, no matter how small it may seem.

I still find myself enchanted by the birds I see every day of my life. I always slow down to watch them fly and try to catch the subtle differences between their calls.

DSC_4424Now it’s been four years since my trip, and I still constantly talk about how I fell in love with the earth in Wyoming. I’m going into my junior year at Stanford University and I’m majoring in Earth Systems. I’ve chosen a track that allows me to study the impact humans have on the environment, but also gives me the opportunity to learn how to be an effective science communicator, as well as the importance of environmental education. Earthwatch has always been my role model in the process of figuring out that science, communication, and education are what I’m passionate about. For the past four years, I’ve dreamt of returning to work for Earthwatch and repaying them for leaving such a lasting impression on my life. And this summer, I finally got the opportunity as I traveled to Boston to intern with the organization. I cannot express how fortunate I feel to be interning with the Ignite program – a program that had such a profound impact on my life – and be a part of the organization that changes people’s lives.

Whenever someone asks me why I picked Earth Systems as my major, I respond with, “Because my heart yearns for the earth.”

And it all started with Earthwatch. They gave me the opportunity to fall in love with the earth. Those memories and those feelings of wanting to work for something bigger than myself are what I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

Into the Peruvian Amazon – The Journey of an EY-Earthwatch Ambassador

The team of 2017 EY-Earthwatch Ambassadors in the Peruvian Amazon.

The team of 2017 EY-Earthwatch Ambassadors in the Peruvian Amazon.

By Tara Servais, EY-Earthwatch Ambassador 2017

As part of EY’s commitment to supporting entrepreneurs and minimizing our environmental footprint, I was selected – along with a team of nine other EY colleagues from across the Americas – to participate in the EY-Earthwatch Ambassadors Program. On Amazon Riverboat Exploration, our diverse team included members representing five countries, all of EY’s core competencies, and several different native languages. Each of us departed from our hometowns to arrive together in Peru where we began our journey deep into the Amazon with two main goals: 1) team together on a skills-based project to support a local scientist and entrepreneur connected to Amazon preservation in his business efforts and 2) support his research studying the impact of climate change on biodiverse communities.

Over the past several years, the Peruvian Amazon has been experiencing impacts of climate change ranging from great levels of flooding to droughts and drastic wildlife population changes. The basin of the Samiria River is now a flooded forest environment with largely diverse plants and animal inhabitants. The local communities that live in the Amazon rely heavily on the sustainability of the environment and wildlife for food, shelter and other basic human necessities. Dr. Richard Bodmer – Earthwatch lead scientist and founder of AmazonEco, a research expedition business – has dedicated the past 30 years of his life to Amazon preservation efforts by conducting research and using the data collected to influence government conservation policy.

Bodmer-EY-riverboat

The research expedition

Our team met in Iquitos, Peru for initial introductions and project briefing. The next day, we boarded a bus and voyaged two hours into the Amazon where we met our home for the next seven days: a historic riverboat built in the 1890s.

Over the course of the next week, our team spent early mornings and afternoons working with Dr. Bodmer and his team of biologists to study wildlife populations and record data. Our research included surveying population density on pink dolphins, various exotic bird species and terrestrial animals such as sloths, anteaters, and monkeys. We caught caiman and piranhas to measure their relative size and recorded the data for further comparison analysis to be conducted.

 

 

The skills-based project

For the skills-based project, we worked into the late evening hours examining AmazonEco’s business operations. The team reviewed the balance sheets, interviewed Dr. Bodmer on revenue streams, understood marketing and communication efforts, and analyzed where marginal profits could increase with low risk to the business.

At the conclusion of the week, our EY team presented the business recommendations to Dr. Bodmer. We found ways to streamline business processes and expand operational revenues summarized in three key areas: marketing, operational and financial optimization, and business development. We provided tangible advice with deliverables that could be implemented in real time as well as a future-looking state of business that would allow him to run AmazonEco’s business operations more soundly.

After a week of getting to know Dr. Bodmer, his research team, the habitats, and local communities that our research would help to conserve, it was difficult to say goodbye. After final parting words, we boarded a bus back to the Iquitos airport and continued the final leg of our journey to Lima.

EY-Lima visit

On our final day, our team arrived at the EY Lima office where we were greeted and escorted to a conference hall. We presented our EY-Earthwatch experience and findings to a group of EY associates who arrived to hear of our expedition. Following our presentation, our team had the opportunity to learn about the sectors most important to Peru’s economy and engage with the local Climate Change and Sustainability Services team. It was remarkable to be in another EY office so far from home, yet the feeling was so familiar to my own office environment. The vastness of EY’s global presence was apparent in that very moment.

The team spent time with a local community school, sharing research and watching special Mother's Day presentations.

The team spent time with a local community school, sharing research and watching special Mother’s Day presentations.

The conclusion, but not the end

Ten strangers came together and found commonality: the one EY culture that we share.

Not one of us experienced this journey the same way. I left with appreciation for the Amazon and a compelling desire to educate others on the importance of working to preserve our planet Earth. The skills based project helped me further develop leadership skills for effectively collaborating in a group setting. The project also gave me confidence in expressing my viewpoints and exercising personal business strengths among a diverse group of peers. I am thankful for this amazing opportunity EY has afforded me and will never forget the individuals, who I now call lifelong friends, that contributed to this incredible experience.


To learn more about the research being conducted on this expedition, visit our project page: Amazon Riverboat Exploration.

 

Citizen Science, Trees, and the Quest for Urban Resiliency

Cambridge, MA

By Kathryn Dunn, Earthwatch Multimedia Intern

Between 2012 and 2015, nearly 9,000 trees in Cambridge, Massachusetts were measured and monitored by both researchers and citizen scientists. Arborist for the City of Cambridge, David Lefcourt, and research director, Vanessa Boukili, Ph.D., led this effort with the extensive help of Earthwatch volunteers. The findings produced by this research are crucial to understanding the relationship between urban forests and urban resiliency.

URBAN RESILIENCY/URBAN FORESTS

Urban forests are the trees that live in an urban setting, such as those you would see planted along a busy sidewalk or in a city park. The resiliency of an urban environment is a city’s ability to adapt to stress-inducing factors, such as climate change, while continuing to survive and thrive. Resiliency is contingent on a variety of factors, but the proper maintenance and understanding of urban forests is more influential than you may think.

An Earthwatch volunteer measures a tree in Cambridge, MA.

An Earthwatch volunteer measures a tree in Cambridge, MA.

When properly maintained, urban trees provide numerous and somewhat unexpected benefits to cities. Beside their aesthetic value, urban trees can cleanse the air, conserve water from runoff, provide shade and cooling, take the edge off city life, and much more. Several studies demonstrate that healthy urban landscapes are positively correlated with lower prevalence of health conditions such as diabetes, stroke, and heart disease.

A better understanding of how to strategically plant and maintain these shady refuges to get the most out of them is critical to urban resiliency.

THREATS TO URBAN RESILIENCY

Despite the clear benefits of urban forests, the trees that produce these desired affects face numerous threats. Climate change tops Lefcourt’s worry list, he says, noting that Cambridge’s trees leafed out much more slowly this year because of last year’s drought and irregular spring weather. These trees also deal with pressure from pollution, disease, lack of adequate exposure to sunlight, and lack of sufficient water.

Additionally, researchers who study these trees face obstacles in their quest to enhance urban resiliency. As expressed by Boukili, “One of the primary challenges we face is collecting data from large numbers of trees. Because there are a lot of different factors that influence tree survival and growth, we need data from many thousands of trees to figure out which factors are most important.”

 

 

THE SCIENCE

Between 2012 and 2015, Boukili, Lefcourt, and other Earthwatch staff trained nearly 550 volunteers to act as “citizen scientists” capable of collecting data and monitoring about 25 percent of the urban trees in Cambridge. The data collected was used in a study to test three new models of tree growth and to supply information with which to estimate ecosystem services on an individual tree and city-wide scale.

The Cambridge study produced data that indicated higher survival rates, lower growth rates, and lower levels of carbon intake than were predicted by other models.

The findings will impact what city planners need to take into consideration when planting trees, and also have the potential to improve the function of current models used to evaluate urban forests.

EARTHWATCH PROGRAMS

Earthwatch continues to contribute to the fight to enhance the resiliency of cities through our one-day projects in the Earthwatch Urban Resiliency Program. Here, volunteers identify and measure trees – producing an amount of data that would be nearly impossible for researchers to collect on their own. The information collected also provides the necessary means to answer the larger questions about our urban spaces. The effective utilization and understanding of green space in the growing urban environment is reliant upon this type of data collection.

As our communities are faced with change, we recognize the significance of resiliency and we will continue to work to extend this type of research to other cities.

“We know we’ve got work to do to ensure that our urban ecosystems are resilient in the face of climate change. There’s no better way to do that than to involve citizens directly in the research itself so they become true ambassadors of our shared environment.” – Scott Kania, Earthwatch CEO

Sea Turtles and Malibu Rum in the Bahamas – The Beginnings of a Beautiful Partnership

Earthwatch Lead Scientist Annabelle Brooks with a team of researchers and Malibu influencers.

By Heather Wilcox, Earthwatch’s Director of Annual Giving

As a fundraiser for Earthwatch, I spend most of my time reaching out to potential donors, tens of thousands of times each year. Most will go unanswered. Thankfully, I don’t take it personally. But every now and again, a potential donor searches you out. This rare turn of events is exactly what happened in early March when a mysterious woman with a Swedish accent called me from a bustling airport to discuss a new corporate partnership opportunity. Through the boarding call announcements, I learned that she represented Malibu Rum, which is produced in Barbados, and was in search of a nonprofit partner to support sea turtle conservation in the Caribbean. Their goal was to send a film crew to record our work and then promote it through social media, including an Instagram fundraising challenge where they hoped to raise $100,000. Malibu had shortlisted Earthwatch as one of a few potential charities.

“$100,000 U.S. dollars?” I remember asking, still in disbelief that such a huge opportunity was now at our fingertips. “Yes, U.S. dollars” she laughed. “Does this sound like something Earthwatch would be interested in?”

“Absolutely!” I replied, still waiting for the catch. “Wonderful” she said. “Because of staff scheduling we are working with a pretty tight window right now… we will need to have filming wrapped by the end of the month.”

Ahh… there it is, I thought. There was no way a small and stretched nonprofit like Earthwatch could orchestrate the myriad of details that would need to go into this in just a few weeks… could we? As it turned out, in a wonderful aligning of the stars – we could! Our Tracking Sea Turtles in the Bahamas expedition wouldn’t have teams in the field at that time; lead scientist Annabelle Brooks was available and willing to go on camera; the research lent itself well to accommodating a small film crew; and, most importantly, I work with an amazingly talented, motivated, and passionate team that was willing to unilaterally prioritize this effort to make it happen. About a week later, Malibu let us know that Earthwatch was their clear top choice for partnership, and so began my first whirlwind adventure as part of a location video shoot.

One of the beautiful beaches of Eleuthera.

One of the beautiful beaches of Eleuthera.

Being sent to the Bahamas for work may sound glamorous, but my daydreams of leisurely meals at beachside cafés quickly vanished when I saw the production schedule: one day to scout, one and a half days to film, four locations, 10-14 hour days with little room for error. Any lack of cooperation by the weather or our flippered friends would cost us the shot. The pressure was on.

Eleuthera, a gorgeous 100-mile long island in the Bahamas, is a fabulous place for leisurely vacations when you have no place to be, but can be challenging when you actually have four places you need to be before losing the light. Marine shoots, I learned, are driven by the angle of the sun and the direction of the tides, since both will impact shot quality due to shadows, turbidity, and glare. Eleuthera’s roads are narrow and rough, internet/cell coverage is spotty, and our “small” crew – with Annabelle and her researchers, multiple camera operators, an underwater dive specialist, sound technician, producers, account managers, talent, assistants and yours truly – numbered close to 30. We literally needed a bigger boat for Day 2. (Thank you to Cape Eleuthera Institute for so graciously providing one in a pinch!)

Fortunately, both the weather and the sea turtles were amenable, and we were able to capture 8 juvenile green turtles for monitoring. I got the chance to participate in this process and let me tell you, it’s not easy to catch a turtle! The process requires a half dozen or more people wading out to waist deep water with a very long, easily snagged or tangled, and quickly-filled-with-seaweed-and-getting-heavier-by-the-minute seine net. You need to move quickly but quietly into a D-shape, and once everyone is in place, you begin walking towards the middle, splashing as much as you can along the way, in order to drive the turtles to the center and close off the net behind them.

Then the real fun begins – trying to grab the turtles as they effortlessly zip through the water and turn on a dime. Let me tell you – turtles are FAST. The best move to catch them when they go by resembles a belly flop that I am sure is highly amusing to watch from the beach. Turtles are also incredibly STRONG, even on their backs. I struggled to hold one especially feisty turtle still after bringing him to shore. Turns out he was a newbie who hadn’t been tagged before and was not going to go quietly: he got in several good slaps and tossed a flipper-full of sand into my face before settling down.

After wrapping the first day, I learned that it takes about four hours of footage to produce a 90-second video. I was amazed at how much time and how many people went into making something so seemingly simple happen. It reminded me of Earthwatch, actually. Starting with our Boston office of about 40 staff, plus the researchers and staff on the ground, and then all our volunteers, you’re looking at one hundred people or more per year and thousands of man hours in the field per expedition to capture the data we need to make a difference. Some projects will run for several years before enough data is collected to be able to inform scientific papers or policy recommendations. And some projects, like our Costa Rican Sea Turtles expedition, will run for decades and we’re still learning. Two years ago, two leatherback turtles who were tagged in our first year of monitoring in Costa Rica – in 1993 – returned to Playa Grande to nest.

This heartwarming story gives us hope of recovery for the critically endangered Eastern Pacific leatherback, and indicates that the protective measures Earthwatch helped implement over 20 years ago are working. It also underscores the powerful role that Earthwatch’s long-term research projects play in conservation. Sometimes decades, careers, even lifetimes are needed to ensure measurable progress. There are no “quick fixes” in conservation, and Earthwatch’s time-tested model enables us to go this distance, no matter how far.

I’m happy to say that the rest of the shoot went according to plan (mostly), and the next morning, our international team scattered back across the globe, departing as abruptly as we had descended on sleepy Eleuthera. Everything happened so fast that I barely snapped any pictures.

Heather (center) with the team of Malibu influencers.

Heather (center) with the team of Malibu influencers.

In true Earthwatch form, I returned home with a wildlife experience I could not have gotten anywhere else, new friendships, and treasured memories that will last a lifetime.

Malibu’s fundraising campaign in support of Earthwatch launches June 16 – World Sea Turtle Day. To get involved, or to learn more about Earthwatch’s 45-year history of sea turtle conservation, visit our website, and follow us on Instagram and Facebook to get the latest updates.

Drought, Meadows, and Climate Change in California’s Sierra Nevada

Hutchinson - credit Tera Dornfield (84)

By Betsy Harbert

Betsy Harbert is a field team leader on the Earthwatch expedition Restoring Meadows in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and river science project manager at the South Yuba River Citizens League. Despite California’s influx of rain this year, drought is still a real threat. Betsy explains how the research being conducted on this project is critical to understanding potential threats meadow ecosystems face due to climate change.


In Loney Meadow, a 40-acre wet meadow in the northern Sierra Nevada of California, the snow is melting and the water is flowing. New plant growth peaks through the flowing waters, birds awaken and share their song with the quiet landscape. This year, California experienced record precipitation. The water coursing through Loney Meadow offers a respite from the extreme drought stress the meadow has been put through over the previous five years. But the future of this meadow remains in doubt, extreme weather events are expected to continue because of climate change. The potential for the meadow to be resilient to these extreme events, or the meadow’s ability to perpetuate through time, is entwined with the extent of disturbance this meadow has experienced over the last century.

Plants and animals, including humans, rely on the meadow for a multitude of functions including habitat, food, water filtration and storage, flood attenuation, and carbon storage. These functions have been directly and indirectly degraded by disturbances such as grazing, mining, and logging. The creation and maintenance of a meadow ecosystem is directly tied to its hydrologic regime, defined as the timing and amount of water flow and retention within the meadow. High water tables during the spring and early summer exclude trees and encourage herbaceous plant and woody shrubs adapted to water logged conditions. Soils are often highly productive, resulting in communities of dense sedges, rushes, grasses, and wildflowers. Leaves and litter left behind at the end of the growing season are incorporated as organic matter into the soil which helps sequester carbon and perpetuates the retention of water in the meadow by holding on to water. Thus, the meadow acts like a ‘sponge,’ holding water late into the summer when the surrounding forests are dry. In this way, the meadow is self-sustaining.

Disturbances that disrupt the hydrologic regime of a meadow are often a result of bare soil being exposed. This can happen through historic overgrazing, roads created to access logging or mining sites, or undersized culverts that concentrate water flows through meadows. Once bare soil is exposed, it sets into motion a cycle of erosion that amplifies over time. Erosion increases the capacity of streams so that water courses quickly through the meadow rather than flooding and infiltrating into the meadow to resupply groundwater. This lowers the water table and degrades the ability of the soil to retain water by accelerated decomposition of organic material.

This matters in times of drought and flooding and everything in between for a degraded meadow. It means that the ground water levels needed to maintain the meadow occur less frequently and for a shorter amount of time. When a degraded meadow floods in extreme years, the erosional force of water only compounds the degradation. The work we do to restore Loney Meadow’s important functions, in collaboration with Earthwatch, is pivotal in creating meadow resiliency in the face of climate change.

But it is your duty as an inquisitive and thoughtful resident of earth to not take our word for it. This story line means nothing unless we can actually measure the functions we claim these meadows provide.

In addition, we must demonstrate that our restoration truly leads to improved function and supports a more diverse and dynamic ecosystem. This is where the collaboration with Earthwatch has been critical.

Since 2014, Earthwatch volunteers have helped to collect pre-restoration data at Loney Meadow that characterizes the timing and amount of water moving through, the flora and fauna that live in, and amount of carbon being stored and released. We will measure these same variables post restoration to verify if our hypothesis of increased function as a result of restoration is correct.

Earthwatch volunteers in the Sierra Nevada meadowsIf you are interested in joining us on this important mission, consider signing up for one of our Earthwatch trips this year or next. We are expecting to implement the restoration at Loney Meadow in the fall of 2017 and we continue to collect pre-restoration data on a number of meadows set to be restored in the coming years.

As we restore more meadows, we increase our impact to broader spatial scales and increase the potential for meadows to provide the important ecosystem functions that we all rely on.

Discover more by visiting the expedition site at: Restoring Meadows in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

For questions or comments about this post, please contact us at communications@earthwatch.org.

From Passion to Action: A Teen’s Experience in Little Cayman

By Jake Schenthal

In July 2016, 17-year-old Jake Schenthal joined the Earthwatch teen expedition: Helping Endangered Corals in the Cayman Islands. Jake has always had a passion for oceans and marine wildlife, but as he began to learn more about the devastating effects of climate change on marine ecosystems, he knew he was ready to make a difference.

Jake blog

For millions of years, coral reefs have flourished within our oceans – almost every animal, in some form, has a connection to coral reefs. Humans especially rely on reefs for food, medicine, tourism, biodiversity, and much more. However, reefs today are under threat from overfishing, unprecedented tourism, ocean acidification, coral bleaching, and climate change. Coral bleaching is a phenomenon that occurs when the seawater gets too warm, or the conditions are not favorable, so the zooxanthellae, algae essential to the coral, disperse from the coral until the conditions return to normal. Without these algae, corals lose their vivid colors and eventually die. Today, climate change is a prime cause of this phenomenon.

“Knowing the importance of reefs and that these values were under threat, I wanted to make a difference.”

I first encountered Earthwatch last year while I was searching for volunteer programs to do over the summer. As a volunteer at a local aquarium, I’ve always been interested in the oceans and the animals within them. While I was deciding between a couple Earthwatch expeditions, Helping Endangered Coral Reefs in the Cayman Islands really stood out to me, not only because it captured my interest in coral reefs, but it would allow me to make a difference in addressing a global crisis: climate change.

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This stunning image taken on Little Cayman was also the 3rd place winner of the 2016 Earthwatch photo contest. Credit: Jake Schenthal

Little Cayman is an island with a permanent population of less than 100. This island is also home to the Central Caribbean Marine Institute (CCMI), one of the most remote and yet most renowned, scientific research stations in the Caribbean. Little Cayman is the smallest of the three Cayman Islands, and because of its limited tourism and infrastructure, the coral reefs are among the most intact of any Caribbean island.

Every day proved to be a different experience. At times, conditions in the field were vigorous, with large swells and undercurrents, but that just added to the sense of adventure. The location was absolutely breathtaking. Snorkeling among the reefs helped to widen my understanding of the oceans, and at the same time, make me feel minuscule. For the first couple days of this incredible experience, we spent time at CCMI learning about the different types of coral that exist in the Caribbean as well as the ways in which they interact. After various workshops and presentations, it was time to do field research.

While challenging at times, the field research was arguably the most enlightening part of the trip. We did two research excursions per day, each to a different part of the island. For much of the research, we used a tape measure, clipboard, writing materials, and a color chart, which depicted healthy and unhealthy colors for coral. When in the water, we would lay a “transect” of the tape measure, and record the colors of any corals that were within that transect. This ensures that the data consistently measures all the corals in the area, not just the bleached ones.

“For years I had heard about the devastating effects of climate change, specifically coral bleaching. Supporting efforts to combat this firsthand was incredible.”

The second part of the research consisted of sponge surveying. Sponges, a natural part of coral reefs, can sometimes be competitive to corals and take over important coral territory. While there is nothing specifically that can be done, especially since it happens naturally, it is important to document the distribution of them, and to see if climate change is increasing their range.

While I could say the crystalline turquoise waters, or the deserted beaches, or the Caribbean vibes were my favorite aspects of the expedition, being able to work together with like-minded individuals easily tops the list. This combined with the research and beauty of the island created a beyond memorable trip. In the end, I’m glad to know that my time and research will help to combat coral bleaching, one of the devastating effects of climate change.

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Jake and his team in Little Cayman.

Guardians of the Forest

By Alix Morris and Dr. Stan Rullman

As darkness settles on the forest, a fleet of tiny owls emerges from the shadows – their soft-edged wings silent as they stalk their prey. Their faces are satellite discs, detecting the faintest rustle – a mouse scurrying amidst the leaf litter, the flutter of a moth’s wings. Little is known about the lives of small forest owls, but scientists are working to change that. From deep within aspen groves in northern Utah to the riparian canyon and coniferous forests in southeastern Arizona, Earthwatch teams are filling in knowledge gaps and testing strategies to protect these owl species from the effects of a changing climate as part of the expedition Following Forest Owls in the Western U.S.

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Adult Northern Saw-whet Owl in Arizona

Of a Feather

The forest sage in our beloved children’s books, the reliable messenger for the wizards at Hogwarts, the sacred bird and symbol of Athena, goddess of wisdom, and the only species that can truly understand how many licks it takes to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop – owls have long served as a source of fascination for humans. Yet despite their cultural popularity, we have a limited understanding of the ecology and conservation status of many of these species, including some of the smallest owls in North America.

oleyar-credit-unknown-3In Southeast Arizona and Northern Utah, Earthwatch volunteers – led by biologist Dr. Dave Oleyar – are studying these unique birds as part of the expedition Following Forest Owls in the Western U.S. Teams of citizen scientists are helping to conserve these compact hunters of the night and their disappearing habitat – an effort that has become more urgent in the face of a changing climate.

Home, Sweet Nest Box

Scientists predict that within this century, aspen forests may all but disappear in many areas, including Northern Utah, where aspen groves provide a unique and essential habitat for small owl species such as Flammulated Owls, as well as other wildlife including songbirds, flying squirrels, and even moose.

Most owls seek out tree cavities, hollow openings such as those carved by woodpeckers, to shelter and nest in. But as these forests disappear, natural tree cavities may disappear along with them. What does that mean for the owls?

“Despite all of the incredible adaptations owls have to get by in a dark world, they’re now in a tough spot because they rely on this one thing – tree cavities. But we don’t know how that one thing will respond to climate change.” – Dr. Dave Oleyar

To address this challenge, researchers have begun to introduce nest boxes that could replace natural tree cavities and help to keep the populations afloat. While this strategy has been effective in Utah, where Flammulated Owls and Saw-whet Owls use the nest boxes regularly, in other regions, the boxes remain empty.

Why does this strategy work in one location for a species, but not in others? Perhaps it has to do with the availability of natural cavities in the region or even the way the boxes themselves are placed.

One thing is clear: Earthwatch needs your help to better understand natural cavity dynamics and why nest box usage in Utah has been more common than in other locations. This knowledge will help managers to protect and promote suitable habitat for small forest owls across their ranges.

Islands in the Sky

Rising up out of the arid Sonoran Desert in Southeast Arizona is an ecologically fascinating archipelago of mountains – the location of Earthwatch’s second research site. These “sky islands” are home to a unique combination of species of plants and animals from both the north and south. This stunning visual landscape is exceeded only by the rich and diverse acoustical soundscape, and is one of Earthwatch Research Director Dr. Stan Rullman’s favorite ways to capture and understand the amazing diversity of life living within these mountains. This transition zone harbors one of the richest bird communities in North America, with around 375 species recorded in the Chiricahua Range alone.

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Earthwatch research site in Southeast Arizona

As an owl researcher himself, Stan celebrates this place as one of the best places in North America to study an entire community of owls, from the three smallest species on the continent (Elf, Flammulated, and Northern Pygmy Owls) to the heaviest owl on the continent – the female Great Horned Owl.

Distinguishing the hoots from the toots is where Stan and Dave’s ears kick into high gear, always scanning the ambient soundscapes for the often subtle but sometimes jarring calls of some of the rarest birds on U.S. soil.

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Elf Owl in a Tree Cavity

In this unique landscape, Earthwatch teams are mapping tree cavities, surveying owl species, and assessing the need to augment the landscape with  the same nest boxes that have been so effective in Utah. The question is: will they work? But perhaps the bigger question is: are they needed? During the first year of research, volunteers found the canyons of the Chiricahua Mountains to have an abundance of tree cavities, primarily in the sycamores that line the canyon streams. And in many of those cavities were nesting Elf Owls and Whiskered Screech-Owls. Whiskered Screeches are so abundant in the lower canyons, in fact, that they may be pushing the Flammulated Owls higher up the mountain slopes, prompting new questions about how a changing climate might affect both of these players in this “find-the-cavity” survival game.

Dave’s Motivating Force: Earthwatch Volunteers

Growing up in eastern Texas, Dave knew every single tree cavity in his childhood neighborhood that harbored nesting Eastern Screech-Owls. Dave’s Masters research focused on how Flammulated Owls adapt to changing land use patterns – specifically the rapid buildup of infrastructure in advance of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Snow Basin, Utah.

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Dr. Dave Oleyar

After completing his PhD, Dave joined HawkWatch International as Senior Scientist. In partnering with Earthwatch, Dave is able to extend his long-term monitoring of Flammulated Owls in Snow Basin with colleague and Earthwatch Field Team Leader Dr. Markus Mika of the University of Wisconsin, LaCrosse, and expand his research to Southeast Arizona, where the drivers of potential changes are very different than northern Utah. Engaging members of the public in his work is critical to the success of his research.

“I’ve done a lot of different research projects and you work a whole lot and you spin your wheels and if you’re lucky you put out a paper or two about it. And if you’re lucky, those papers are read by maybe 50 scientists, or cited and used. And that’s impactful and I wouldn’t diminish the importance of that at all. But to have 56 people who came and spent time with us this summer who now appreciate climate change, small owls, and cavity nesters – and how these cavity nesters rely on cavities and what’s involved there – that is impact on a very different level.

To know that these folks now consider these processes when they engage with the natural world, and that they’re going to share that message with their families and social circles – that’s the biggest impact this project is going to have. No matter how many papers we churn out. – Dr. Dave Oleyar

To learn more about this research in Arizona and Utah, visit our website: Following Forest Owls in the Western U.S.

Please contact us at communications@earthwatch.org with any questions or comments about this post.

In Defense of Climate Science in an Era of Alternative Facts: Q&A with Dr. Steve Mamet

On the Earthwatch project Climate Change in the Mackenzie Mountains, Dr. Steve Mamet has been monitoring the effects of climate change in the Arctic where ecological responses are expected to be greatest. Steve and his predecessors have been collecting data in the area since 1990. After nearly 30 years of conducting research in the area, recent funding cuts mean the project is now at risk. Steve explains why each year of monitoring is crucial and why Earthwatch volunteers are so important to this effort. Find out how you can help to support this project by contacting us at communications@earthwatch.org.

mamet-blog


Q&A with Dr. Steve Mamet

Earthwatch: You are in your eleventh year of studying in the Mackenzie Mountains, but research and monitoring has been occurring since the early 1970s. What is the value in having this long-term data?

Steve Mamet: One of the most important reasons in my mind is that climate is something that changes over a number of decades. And because of that, we couldn’t go up there just one year and measure thaw depth and be able to say much about how permafrost, for example, is changing. You need to have a longer record to be able to tease out some of these changes that are ongoing. Without long-term environmental monitoring, you’re not going to be able to record some of the changes that are ongoing. Not only that, you wouldn’t have the high-quality data to inform your modeling to make accurate predictions for the future.

EW: What is the significance of the loss of one year of data?

SM: We’ve seen that some of these changes – these really dramatic changes that we have seen in the last five years – can occur over a year or two. So it’s almost like you’ve got your camera set up and you’re waiting for that shot where the bear emerges from its den from hibernation and you decide to go grab a coffee and you come back and you realize you’ve missed it. So even though you’ve put in all that time and maybe gotten some good shots in the meantime, you didn’t really get the money shot.

EW: Right. So was that coffee worth it in the end? Was it even a good cup of coffee?

SM: It was probably terrible.

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Dr. Steve Mamet working with Earthwatch volunteers on the expedition Climate Change in the Mackenzie Mountains.

EW: Set the scene for us in this remote region in the Mackenzie Mountains. What is it like working in this region of the Arctic?

SM: So I guess I have to put myself back in my younger shoes from when I first went up back in 2006 and I’m seeing this area for the first time. So first, you follow this old World War II road, which is in terrible condition – huge holes and rivers have washed away bridges and that sort of thing. But it’s almost like a step back in time. There’s not a lot of trees around, and you can see old oil barrels from the 1940s just left where tmamet-credit-shirley-cusak-19hey fell basically 70 years ago. In other places, you can see these old trucks that broke down, and then they got pilfered for parts to fix another truck, and then that truck broke down and got pilfered, so there’s these old World War II-era vehicles scattered around the area. It’s an interesting juxtaposition between this very unspoiled, untouched, beautiful area – where you can see glaciers on some mountains – to these scattered mamet-credit-shirley-cusak-46disturbances from the 1940s when they were trying to get oil from Western Canada to the coast in Alaska.

EW:  Do you often see wildlife there as well?

SM: I don’t think I’ve ever gone up and not seen wildlife. There’s a fair number of caribou up there. Though, we don’t see as many as we did even 10 years ago, I think partially because of climate change, but also the added pressure of hunting. But that gloomy part aside, I’ve seen black bears up there, grizzly bears. You see a lot of ptarmigan. There’s great fishing. You’ve got a number of different trout species you can catch. There are Gyrfalcons; I’ve seen eagles up there; I’ve seen a number of wolves. With the Earthwatchers, we’re up there for 10 days – you’re definitely going to see some wildlife and probably some stuff you might not have seen before.

EW: Why are we seeing the greatest signs of climate change in this region? You would think that in a colder area, signs would be slower to show.

SM: I hear the Arctic referred to a lot as the “canary in the coalmine.” In the Arctic, you’ve got this massive ice sheet or snowpack, so it’s almost like there’s more of a potential for change. So if you warm it by a few degrees, you get retreating sea ice and then you have less of this light-colored ice that’s going to reflect incoming solar radiation. And that’s replaced with this dark water that absorbs a lot of the incoming sun and then converts it to heat, and then more ice melts, which means more heating. So there is a greater potential for feedbacks in this region.

EW: What signs of climate change are you seeing?

SM: For part of my work, I look at tree growth at the very northern edge of where trees can grow, and I see – at least among some species – that trees are growing faster than they have in the last 400 years. I measure this by coring the tree, measuring the annual growth increments (the tree rings), and I can get a metric of growth throughout time. So if the trees are 400 years old, I’ve got a 400-year record of growth. And in recent years, for some species, I’ve seen a really dramatic increase in growth over the last 30 years or so where they’re growing much faster than they have. And when I look at the rest of the growth record, that growth is unprecedented since the 1600s.

EW: For someone who’s not familiar with this research, one might think “More trees, faster growing trees – that’s a good thing, right?” But it sounds like that’s not the case.

SM: Well, it’s all relative. If you’re a tree, that’s great. You can grow faster, you can have more vigor and that means produce more seeds, and get those seeds out and presumably move the tree line further north and further up slope. But if you’re tundra vegetation, that’s where you’re sort of getting outcompeted. You’ve colonized these areas and been there for hundreds of thousands of years and now you’re seeing this change where the trees are moving in.

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EW: Why does it matter that the tree line is moving further north and taking over the vegetation area?

SM: For animal ecologists, you’re having traditional animal habitat move into other habitats, so there will be some repercussions there. And I think one of the big things from a climate perspective is that you’re changing the energy balance of the Earth. If the trees are growing much faster, it means that potentially more photosynthesis is occurring, which is drawing down carbon – a negative feedback. But there are more positive feedbacks, like when the temperature is getting warm, the trees become more stressed and start to respire: the reverse of photosynthesis where carbon is being emitted into the atmosphere along with water vapor, which is a powerful greenhouse gas. Another issue is that light tundra vegetation, which is very reflective – it reflects around 70 percent of the incoming solar radiation – is being replaced with dark colored trees, which reflect around only 30 percent of the incoming solar radiation. If trees move further north, further upslope, more greenhouse gases are emitted, and more trees mean lower reflectivity or what we’d call albedo, which means more warming, which means more trees. So there’s a potential for a bit of a runaway effect there.

EW: What can the average person do today to help fight climate change?

SM: That’s a question I get asked a lot actually, and it’s one I have been thinking about a lot more the last few years. I feel there are two big things: The first is to become more informed. If you read a piece in the paper about climate change, see if you can access the article online to really understand firsthand what’s going on because the news has an obligation to sell stories and sometimes there’s a bit of a spin or a passing off a part as the whole. And I think by using that knowledge, you can start making more informed choices in your daily life.

“When you’re going to the polls to elect your government officials, look and see where they stand in terms of the environment.”

Start electing people that might be more interested in things like a carbon tax, because that seems to be the biggest one to really combat climate change on a broad scale is to have a change in the way that the government handles the environment. On a more day-to-day basis, you can just make small changes in your life. I’m a little bit of a nutter, I love to cycle year round. It’s currently minus 30 outside, but I’m still riding my bike. But, maybe in the summertime, you can walk or bike somewhere rather than taking your car; you can look at changing some of your appliances in your house to more high efficiency options. Or try not running the water when brushing your teeth. If we start doing things like this on a larger scale – I think we can make a huge difference.

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To learn more about this research in the Arctic, check out our multimedia piece “Trees in the Tundra.” To join this project, visit our website: Climate Change in the Mackenzie Mountains.

Please contact us at communications@earthwatch.org with any questions or comments about this post.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The Top 10 Earthwatch Expeditions of 2016 (according to our volunteers)!

What were the best expeditions of 2016 according to our volunteers? To find out, we tallied the evaluation scores submitted by each volunteer after his or her expedition—a measurement of training, safety, support, team dynamic, research contribution, overall satisfaction, and many other factors. Knowledgeable, tireless, and inspiring research staff; the ability and experience of interacting with and connecting with wildlife and ecosystems untouched by tourists; the knowledge that one person can make a difference in the world—these are just a few examples of volunteers’ expedition highlights.

  1. Uncovering the Mysteries of Ancient Colorado

ryan-credit-unknown-5-copyAround the globe, humans made a critical transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture. The Mesa Verde region in southwest Colorado is ideal for studying this transition. Volunteers are digging into the ancient past of this region to search for clues to the biggest shift in human history.

“This was my first expedition with Earthwatch. Getting to participate in an actual dig alongside professionals and sharing in their excitement of discovery is an experience I’ll long remember. I appreciated how the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center took good care of its Earthwatch volunteers, and also how they provided information and context prior to our field experience. At the end of my week, I was wishing I had signed up for the two-week program, which I am hoping I will be able to do next year!”Debra Berliner

 

  1. Amazon Riverboat Exploration

bodmer-maire-kirkland-196-copyAboard a riverboat deep in the heart of Peru’s flooded Amazon region, volunteers are helping to conserve the wildlife within this biodiverse area filled with pink river dolphins, many species of primates, macaws, caiman, giant river otters, and exotic fish.

“I’m an animal lover, and awakening to dolphins playing outside my door still gives me chills. I loved getting to meet the local people and see how they live. Traveling on the boats, taking our censuses, learning, looking at our amazing surroundings . . . There just aren’t words.”Deborah Fohringer

 

  1. Conserving Endangered Rhinos in South Africa

Rhino populations are in crises due to the high value of rhino horn combined with scott-credit-kristen-lalumiere-7-copy
widespread poaching. Volunteers are helping scientists in understanding the impact rhinos have on the environment to better help conserve and manage their populations in South Africa.

“If you’ve only seen animals in a zoo, prepare to have your mind blown!  In the rhino expedition, you enter the animals’ world and spend hours watching them in their own habitat, interacting with their babies or their pals…This expedition truly takes you to another world, a world that is refreshing to know still exists apart from our fast-paced human world.”
– Marcia Hanlon

 

  1. Trailing Penguins in Patagonia 

quintana-credit-agustina-gomez-laich-5-copyHow exactly do penguins forage for food at sea and how does this impact their young? Volunteers in Patagonia, Argentina, are helping researchers find the answers to these questions by tagging penguins and mapping the location of each nest in the colony.

“I learned a great deal about Magellanic Penguins, their nesting behaviors, and the threats that they face. I also gained a better perspective on the research being conducted in Argentina and the researchers conducting it. This was also my first introduction to Argentina, which made the expedition even more educational.”Doug DeNeve

 

  1. Costa Rican Sea Turtles

The leatherback sea turtle population in the Pacific, once the stronghold of the species, robinson-credit-nathan-robinson-30-copyhas declined by over 90% since 1980. To truly understand why this ancient species has declined so rapidly, volunteers are helping to observe and monitor nesting turtles, relocate eggs from nests in dangerous spots, and release hatchlings born in the hatchery into the ocean.

“This was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had working as a team on a project. The researchers and field staff made the volunteers feel as though we were actually contributing something to this research, and in some small ways, helping to protect and preserve the mighty leatherback!”
Kathryn Bonn

 

  1. Exploring an Active Volcano in Nicaragua 

The Masaya Valcano is persistently active – it erupts constantly, but it does not spew out rymer-volunteers-dscn7219-copymolten rock. Instead, it releases a steady plume of gas. To understand how the volcano’s plume shapes the surrounding environment, volunteers are studying pollinating insects, collecting plant, water and soil samples, and setting up scientific instruments to monitor the Masaya’s crater.

“Exploring an active volcano in Nicaragua was a once in a lifetime experience. Being able to work with scientists on their research, climb around on an active volcano, and then share what I learned with my K-8 students was an enriching and valuable experience. I was able to check in with my students daily and work with the scientists and other volunteers to answer their questions. I really believe this was a once in a lifetime and unique travel experience.”
Jennifer Fenner

 

  1. Unearthing Ancient History in Tuscany

megale-credit-unknown-59-copyThe ancient seaside city of Populonia was once a center of metalworking and trade. Volunteers are helping archaeologists reconstruct the complex past of this region to better understand the lives of the people who lived in the city between the 7th and 1st century BCE.

“[This expedition] made me more keen than ever to study anthropology and it was fascinating to see what life as an anthropologist involves. It also made me understand how archaeology, history, anthropology, and geology all have to link to fully understand the lives of people in ancient times.”Lucia Simmen

 

  1. Wildlife in the Changing Andorran Pyrenees

nita-losoponkul-daffodils-and-snowIn the high slopes of the Andorran Pyrenees, as in other mountain regions, climate change has already begun to alter the landscape. Some species are moving to higher latitudes and some have begun to decline. How have humans impacted this ecosystem? Volunteers are hiking through forests and meadows, studying alpine flora and surveying snowbed vegetation, to help researchers find out how animals are faring and how best to protect key species.

“Going on the Earthwatch expedition to Andorra gave me the chance to explore a region I never would have thought of when planning a normal vacation. If you have a sense of adventure and want to better understand a culture very different from your own, I strongly urge you to consider going on this expedition.”Ryan Filer

 

  1. Animals of Malawi in the Majete Wildlife Reserve

How can we best help African wildlife return to and thrive in their native habitat? leslie-credit-dr-allison-case-3-copyVolunteers are helping researchers gather the data they need to best manage the park by monitoring the many species in the reserve, conducting waterhole counts, and studying camera-trap images.

“Laying in my cot to sleep at night and seeing through the slit of my tent window – maybe 15 yards from my pillow – the tusks of elephants gleaming in the bright full moon as a herd passed through camp was a magical moment…Watching the parade of animals visit the waterhole over the course of an entire day was the stuff I had dreamed about since childhood. Yes, I could have had some similar experiences had I gone on a commercial safari, but this Earthwatch project allowed me the opportunity to be connected to the wildlife reserve and its inhabitants in as meaningful and authentic way as possible for a layperson.”
David Meyerson

 

  1. South African Penguins

SANYO DIGITAL CAMERANinety percent of the penguin population on Robben Island has disappeared over the past 100 years. The island lies in the middle of major shipping lanes, and the risk of oil spills to local seabirds has been well documented. Here, volunteers are working with researchers to monitor the health of this island environment and monitoring seabirds to help reduce the impact of the various threats to this fragile environment.

“Signing up for this project was the best thing I have done. It was such a privilege to be given the opportunity to live and work on an island that is full of history and inhabited by mostly birds and other wildlife. To be up close and personal with the penguins was such an awesome feeling.”Emi Estrada

Not All Trees Are Created Equal

By Lily Reynolds

The Earthwatch Urban Resiliency Program is a partnership between Earthwatch, scientists from UC Riverside, and community organizations to influence sustainable management of urban green space. The goal is to sustain cooler, more natural, and healthier environments by increasing urban tree cover in key communities beyond 25 percent. One important aspect of this is to make sure that the right trees are being planted in the right places. Earthwatch’s Lily Reynolds explains the goal of this research and why it is so critical. 


Photo: Lily Reynolds

Extreme weather, like extreme sports, is something best avoided unless one is prepared and willing to live on the edge. Yet cities around the world are trying to prepare for the effects of extreme weather. The urban environment of the future promises to be hotter, drier, and marked by more extreme weather events. One promising adaptation strategy for cities is to increase the number of healthy trees. Cities that plant and grow more trees stand to gain resilience in the face of climate change.

The beneficial ‘services’ that trees provide our cities include: cooling our homes and buildings with shade, filtering storm water, capturing carbon we produce, and also beautifying our neighborhoods.

However, not all trees are created equal and each species may be better suited for different urban environments and climates. Southern California is an especially interesting region for climate change research because the metropolitan areas span three ecosystem types and it’s the second largest metropolitan area in the United States. Because trees in urbanized centers (such as greater Los Angeles) are planted by the people who live there, it is important to get inside the psyche of residents to figure out why they choose to plant certain tree species instead of others.

Do you really know why you love that tree? ("The Giving Tree" by Shel Silverstein)

Do you really know why you love that tree? (“The Giving Tree” by Shel Silverstein)

A team of scientists, led by Dr. Meghan Avolio and including Dr. Darrel Jenerette from University California Riverside, studied the Los Angeles region with one particular question in mind: What drives peoples’ preferences for different species and how do these preferences align with the benefits offered by different tree species? For example, would people living in the hottest parts of Los Angeles be more likely to choose trees that offer shade? The researchers were also interested in whether traits like people’s age, gender, and income are related to their preferences of tree types. (Find the full article here.)

The researchers analyzed 1,029 household surveys across Riverside, Orange, and Los Angeles counties. The two most important attributes of trees that people consistently valued were whether trees provided shade and whether trees provided showy flowers (i.e. beauty). The scientists also found people living in hotter parts of Los Angeles (away from the coast) were more likely to value shade trees than those located in cooler regions. Moreover, people living in drier regions were more concerned about tree water use than people living in areas with higher rainfall.

Interestingly, whether the local environment was naturally treed or not also had an effect on people’s perceptions of the value of trees. People that were surrounded by desert were less likely to identify positive effects of trees in urban environments compared with people located in naturally forested areas. Several factors such as levels of education, wealth, gender and age all influenced people’s perceptions of trees. For example, older residents were more likely to be concerned with the cost of maintenance and women were more likely to associate trees with positive attributes in urban environments than men.

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Thanks to this study, for the first time we understand that both the climate where people live and their socioeconomic attributes affect their opinions of different tree characteristics. Moreover, when combined with another study led by Avolio and her collaborators, we know that people’s preferences for trees often coincides with the trees in their yards. For example, people who identify shade trees as important live in neighborhoods with a greater proportion of shade trees. However, this is not true for all socioeconomic groups. While people from lower income neighborhoods have strong preferences for fruit-bearing trees, this preference does not translate into more fruit-bearing trees in their neighborhoods. This may be due to the restricted economics of this group that prevents them enacting their preference.

Avolio and her collaborators have shown how people are sensitive to what is happening in the environment where they live. This is a good sign when it comes to the future of urban forests, because it means that people consider tree attributes in the context of their neighborhood when planting trees.

Major metropolitan regions such as Los Angeles need to prepare for climate change and planting trees is one good strategy.

Since 2014, over 900 people have participated through Earthwatch in citizen science activities to collect vital information on trees from Santa Monica to Palm Springs. Everyone from elementary school kids to Master Gardeners, from architects to high tech engineers, from bankers to educators have rolled up their sleeves and helped collect data that is passed along to scientists at UC Riverside.

By actively engaging citizens in field research, we believe that not only will we be able to gather the information necessary to make better decisions about growing the right tree in the right place, but citizens will also be able to contribute and increase their awareness of what is necessary to do their part in helping to make Los Angeles more livable for all into the future.

Learn how you can get involved by visiting the Earthwatch Urban Resiliency Program’s website and stay up to date on the findings by checking out the Earthwatch Urban Resiliency Blog.

A Fellowship Ignites Passion For Environmental Protection

ignite-fernando-garciaBy Fernando Garcia, 2014 Ignite Fellow

In 2014, Fernando Garcia decided to take a chance on what would be a life changing opportunity. He applied for a two-week science fellowship to work alongside scientists in Northern Maine on the Earthwatch expedition Climate Change: Sea to Trees at Acadia National Park. Funded by The Durfee Foundation, the Ignite LA Student Science Awards aim to stimulate curiosity and interest in science and technology through hands-on research. Fernando found a renewed sense of passion and awareness for protecting our natural environment.


miller-rushing-credit-mike-mao-7-copyThree years have passed since I travelled to Maine for my Earthwatch Ignite experience, and I could not be any more thankful for those two weeks. During my junior year of high school, I was informed at the last moment of this opportunity by my counselor and decided to apply since it seemed like something I’d enjoy. I was able to receive two recommendations from my teachers and finish my application in time before the deadline, hoping for the best. When I got an email saying that I was chosen to participate, I was both excited and nervous.

I was excited at the opportunity to do research with a scientist in Maine, but nerves and worries were present since I had never before travelled out of state without my parents. Fortunately, the worry did not last long. Before we left for Maine, the Fellows all had the opportunity to meet each other, which made me much more relaxed as I got to know my team members and learned that they were not only smart, but friendly as well. My worry had changed into palpable excitement!

Once in Maine at the project site, Acadia National Park, I was amazed by the natural beauty of the setting surrounding us. We were right next to the coast and I could often hear the waves hit against the rocky shore. The days were enjoyably spent. In addition to conducting research, we would often go hiking down the mountains, and once we even travelled to Cadillac Mountain – the first place in the United States to receive sunlight each day. The research we conducted in Maine was both interesting and transformative. Although the results will take some years to be published, I think we all felt that we were making a difference.

In urban cities like Los Angeles, surrounded by concrete walls, it is often so easy to ignore the damage we are inadvertently causing to the environment.

The Earthwatch Ignite Program allowed me to see another world beyond Los Angeles and instilled in me an interest in protecting our natural environment. Not only was I able to create a bond with my other Earthwatch Ignite Fellows, but I also learned that I should take risks in my own life. Even though to others travelling alone might be common, for me that was far from the truth, and this experience made me much more conscious of my abilities.

Because of this experience, I applied to many colleges realizing that my experience in Maine would make me stand out. If I had the opportunity to go back and apply to the Ignite Fellowship again, I definitely would because this experience was one of the highlights of my high school career. I will never forget the mornings where I woke up literally in the middle of a national park and saw all that our planet has to offer. The generosity that organizations such as the Durfee Foundation provide to high school students is invaluable in giving individuals the ability to soar. The Earthwatch Ignite Program nurtures a love of STEM for so many of its past participants, including me, and I am proud to call myself an alumnus.


To learn more about the Ignite LA Student Science Awards, visit our website.

Plastic, Sea Beans, and Miles of Ocean

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABy Dianna Bell

Never would I have imagined going to the Cayman Islands twice in one year. But when an opportunity presented itself to join an Earthwatch expedition in Little Cayman – I jumped at the chance to return to a place where I had vacationed just months ago. But this time, I would be experiencing something very different: a scientific lab of discovery on the expedition Helping Endangered Corals in the Cayman Islands.

As I took the final leg of my journey on a 10-seater plane, the pilot (in the role of flight attendant) turned around to tell us to buckle up. I was surprised to find myself feeling a bit nervous. Flying over the varying hues of blue, I didn’t know what to expect from my first Earthwatch expedition. I didn’t know who I would meet. I didn’t know if I had the skills required to partake in the scientific field work.

As we de-boarded the plane on the tiny 10-mile island of Little Cayman, and I was greeted by Central Caribbean Marine Institute (CCMI) staff, I realized that although I still didn’t know what to expect, it would undoubtedly be a special experience. In the days that followed, I got to know my teammates – a former oceanographer, a Shell engineer, a Department of Energy employee, and one of my coworkers from Earthwatch. I snorkeled more than I ever have before, I saw two nurse sharks, and I learned about many different species of coral and why they’re important. I learned about the importance of sea sponges and urchins, and why invasive species such as the lionfish and green iguana can wreak havoc on tiny island ecosystems.

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And most importantly, I learned that I can make a difference, even if on a small scale.

Researchers around the world need helping hands to get their work accomplished. Here on Little Cayman, there are many coral reefs to survey, and left to one person, the work will take much too long to accomplish.

As we’ve seen for some time, our planet is on the brink of some serious climate-related changes. Having additional hands in the field helping to collect data can speed the process of scientific discovery and conservation along significantly. Here in Little Cayman, Earthwatch volunteers help to survey large areas of coral to assess the health of the reefs. This in turns feeds into larger datasets that can show trends in the marine ecosystem.

Mangroves on Little Cayman.

Mangroves on Little Cayman.

So what can we do to steer the ship away from the climate change iceberg?

Sign up for an Earthwatch expedition. Go into the field and support scientists as they study the effects climate change is having on plants, animals, and ecosystems around the world. Or maybe look to your own community to lend a hand. Start with leading a trash cleanup day.

One of the most memorable moments from the trip was helping clean the beach in front of a local restaurant here on Little Cayman. The five of us on the team collected 10 bags of trash, waste that’s coming to the island from all over the world.

Trash that has washed ashore Little Cayman.

Trash that has washed ashore Little Cayman.

Little Cayman is home to 150 to 200 people, depending on the time of year. Yet every day, bags and bags of garbage wash ashore.

Seeing the many discarded items on the beach today was a revelation for me. Despite my own eco-friendly nature, I have a carbon footprint, and this has widespread effects – effects I had previously never seen laid before me so clearly.

As I picked up the bottle caps, toothbrushes, shoes, contact lens cases, medicine vials, and various forms of plastic, I was reminded of a little factoid CCMI’s Scientific Educational Outreach and Dive Instructor Katie told us on our very first day. We had been gearing up to snorkel, and she bent down and picked up a smooth brown shiny rock-like object. She brought it over to us and informed us that it was a sea bean: the seed of a fruit that drifted out into the ocean, sometimes carried for hundreds of miles. She told us the one in her hand most likely came to the island from Central America.

While collecting trash from the shore, I uncovered some of these sea beans. Just like the waters carried the seeds of tropical trees to new lands, so did it bring the discarded objects of humans from miles and miles away.

Our actions matter. Whether we intend to or not, we are making a difference. What I was reminded of during my time in Little Cayman was that I have the power to choose whether my actions will help or hurt. We all do.

The Anthropocene and You: How Earthwatch citizen scientists can support environmental stewardship

By Dr. Steve Mamet

Drs. Steve Mamet and LeeAnn Fishback are the lead scientists on the Earthwatch expeditions Climate Change at the Arctic’s Edge and Climate Change in the Mackenzie Mountains. In celebration of International Day of Climate Action, Steve shares some of the many ways Earthwatch citizen scientists can give back and help to protect our environment – both during and after the expeditions.

steve-mamet_profileHuman activity is now the main cause of most environmental change. These changes have been so profound that scientists suggest we have entered a new geological epoch called the Anthropocene, as we can now observe the global presence of humans in the geologic record. The Anthropocene epoch is a glaring reminder of how we have changed the environment.

The good news is that we as a global community have the means to change the environment for the better.

Though you might feel like your lifestyle is insignificant compared to things like oil extraction or vehicle emissions, the choices we make in our day-to-day life — how we get around, what we eat, how we live — play a major role in slowing climate change. And we as a global community can make a tremendous impact on the environment. One example is the Montreal Protocol in the late 1980s—which started with the scientific discovery of substances that deplete the ozone layer and the “ozone hole” above Antarctica, and culminated with a widespread change in policy to reduce ozone-depleting halogenated hydrocarbons. And this action took place before widespread scientific consensus was established, highlighting the importance and effectiveness of international action on environmental issues.

We’ve changed climate and the environment in the past and it’s inevitable we’ll change it in the future. In contrast to our ancestors who cultivated widespread deforestation, pollution, and climatic change, with little knowledge of how those actions would influence future generations, we now know we have more choices than ever before.

A more sustainable global community starts with informed choices by individuals like you and comfort in the knowledge that we as a global community can make a difference.

As part of our Climate Change at the Arctic’s Edge and Climate Change in the Mackenzie Mountains Earthwatch expeditions, Earthwatch citizen scientists travel to northern research sites in the Northwest Territories and northern Manitoba in Canada to help scientists collect a great breadth and depth of data and maintain long-term environmental monitoring.

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But what can citizen scientists do to respond to climate change once they’re back from the field? On your expeditions, you’ve already taken leaps and bounds during your expedition time on the first crucial step: getting informed. But here are a few other tips to help you along the way (see http://www.davidsuzuki.org/ for more information).

  1. Get informed. A good place to start following the latest news about climate change is through realclimate.org: a site on climate science by climate scientists including Michael Mann, Ray Bradley, and Gavin Schmidt.
  2. Get involved. Contact your political representatives and tell them you want immediate action on climate change. Remind them that reducing greenhouse gas emissions will also build healthier communities, spur economic innovation, and create new jobs. Look to join sustainable living organizations in your area (you can start here: http://www.thegreenspotlight.com/). And when you’re at the polls, vote for politicians who support effective climate policies.
  3. Increase your energy efficiency. You already switch off lights — what’s next? Change light bulbs to compact fluorescents or LEDs. Unplug electronics when not in use. Wash clothes in cold or warm (not hot) water. Dryers are energy intensive, so hang dry when you can. Install a programmable thermostat. Look for the Energy Star® label (https://www.energystar.gov/) when buying new appliances. Home energy audits are cheaper than you think; book one today to find even more ways to save energy.
  4. Choose renewable power. Ask your utility companies and urge your elected representatives to switch to clean, renewable power, such as from wind farms. Consider adding solar panels to reduce your reliance on the energy grid.
  5. Eat wisely, including organic and locally grown foods. Avoid processed items that require a lot of energy to produce. Grow some of your own food. Eat low on the food chain — at least one meat-free meal a day — since 18 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions come from meat and dairy production. Become more familiar with your food and what it means to be able to eat pretty much anything. A great place to start is Michael Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals.
  6. Reuse, reduce, recycle. It sounds like old maxim, but one of the easiest ways to reduce your carbon footprint is to buy less, reduce what you throw away, reuse what you can, and recycle the rest. Garbage buried in landfills produces methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Keep waste out of landfills by composting kitchen scraps and garden trimmings, and recycling paper, plastic, metal, and glass. Let store managers and manufacturers know you want products with minimal or recyclable packaging.
  7. Let broad-scale polluters pay. Carbon taxes make polluting activities more expensive and green solutions more affordable, allowing energy-efficient businesses and households to save money. They are one of the most effective ways to reduce a nation’s climate impact. Carbon taxes are often revenue-neutral, meaning higher taxes on carbon supplement lowering other taxes you pay. If your state or province doesn’t have a carbon tax, ask your elected representative to implement one.
  8. Fly less. Air travel leaves behind a huge carbon footprint. Before you book your next airline ticket, consider greener options such as buses or trains, or try vacationing closer to home. You can also stay in touch with people by videoconferencing, which saves time as well as travel and accommodation costs.
  9. Green your commute through public or active transport. Transportation causes about 25 per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions, so walk, cycle, or take transit whenever you can. You’ll save money and get into better shape! If you can’t go car-free, try carpooling or car sharing, and use the smallest, most fuel-efficient vehicle possible.

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A Week Spent Restoring Sierra Nevada’s Meadows

Anna Woodroof in the meadows of Sierra Nevada.

Anna Woodroof

By Anna Woodroof, Earthwatch Program Delivery Assistant

The Sierra Nevada Mountains supply two-thirds of California’s water supply. Meadows in these mountains capture rain and snow, making water available throughout the year. Earthwatch Program Delivery Assistant Anna Woodroof spent time restoring and monitoring this ecosystem in order to better understand potential threats to water supply and biodiversity due to climate change on the expedition Restoring Meadows in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.


As an East Coaster, I find the landscapes of the West amazing, unlike anything we have at home. The cliffs and valleys seem to invoke a Disney-like magic like the backdrop of a movie set. I recently joined the Earthwatch expedition Restoring Meadows in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, where I worked in meadows at the elevation of some of the highest mountains on the East Coast, surrounded by even higher peaks. The expedition was a combination of challenging physical work, a huge sense of accomplishment, and periods of serenity where I was able to enjoy the vast landscape and reflect on all that I was seeing. I loved learning about the importance of the meadows for the community and for the greater California state.

Looking out across the Sierra to the Sierra ButtesReno, Nevada wasn’t the first place I would think to go for quick access to some of the most beautiful landscapes the United States has to offer. But my recent participation on this week-long Earthwatch expedition, in addition to two one-day programs in the Sierra Nevada meadows (which I describe below), changed that perception. Both projects included beautiful sunny weather and amazing vistas of mountains, massive trees, and golden valleys.

For the week-long expedition, my team participated in the scientific studies of meadows in the Yuba watershed. We worked alongside lead scientist Rachel Hutchinson, as well as other researchers from the South Yuba River Citizens League (SYRCL), to understand how human activities have altered the meadows on the Western-side of the Sierra Nevada and how these changes will impact their response to a changing climate.

Over the course of one week, we installed three groundwater-monitoring wells, collected data on stream water level flows, and identified meadow plant species by collecting several biomass samples. The research took place between long fascinating hikes through Tahoe National Forest with a passionate botanist and enthusiastic hydrologist ready to answer any questions we had. SYRCL is working to create a budget of the carbon released and sequestered in the particular meadows with the hopes of influencing policy with the findings.

The other projects I took part in were one-day events with researchers from the University of Nevada, Reno. This project series – called Sierra to Sea – also studies meadows, but on the Eastern-side of the Sierra Nevada, and strives to recruit locals whose communities will be directly impacted by the study to participate. The volunteers consisted of high school students, college undergraduates and the other community members who spent a Saturday or Sunday with the researchers in the field. We collected biomass samples, measured trees and sagebrush, and learned about the difference between wet and dry meadows when it comes to carbon sequestration. Even though the group volunteered together for one day, I got to know a lot about the people of the region through the local community members who participated.

Learning about the local water source and the science behind carbon sequestration in meadows made me think more about my own community and the processes taking place there. The researchers and community members participating rely on the water and the biodiversity of the meadows and have a personal perspective surrounding the issues. I think both groups learned a great deal from this experience and will take their newfound knowledge back to their everyday lives.

Student Ignites Path To Career In Science Through Fellowship Program

By Kiara Reed, 2014 Ignite Fellow

In 2014, Kiara Reed left her home in Los Angeles and traveled across the country to a remote corner of Maine to embark on a two-week science fellowship on the expedition Climate Change: Sea to Trees at Acadia National Park. Funded by The Durfee Foundation, the Ignite LA Student Science Awards aim to stimulate curiosity and interest in science and technology through hands-on research. Kiara immersed herself in the beauty of Acadia National Park and came away from the experience transformed and inspired to pursue a career in science. 


20160712_194408Before embarking on this program, I had never set foot on a national park reserve, let alone Acadia National Park – a 47,000-acre, pine tree-filled paradise off the coast of Maine. As a Los Angeles city dweller, I was in awe at the miles and miles of vast forestry and picturesque views from our peninsula to the surrounding islands. Along with enjoying the scenes, I was given explanations about the ecology of the region. Our chief scientist, Dr. John Cigliano, taught us about the overfishing of cod in the western Atlantic Basin and ocean acidification, our research topic.

As a team, my group and I tracked the biodiversity of organisms in tide pools, many of which have calcium carbonate shells, rendering them vulnerable to changes in pH levels in the water. We collected common periwinkle snails from the tide pool for further observation. Examining snail behavior and shell weights in the lab made me feel like a real field researcher, giving me insights otherwise unobtainable at my inner-city high school. I left the expedition with a newfound appreciation for nature and a more realistic view about what research is all about.

Common periwinkles on barnacles in Acadia National Park.

Common periwinkles on barnacles in Acadia National Park.

When the college exploration season came around, the impacts of this expedition became clear. My college counselor mandated that everyone apply to an out of state school. Having cherished my time in Maine, I decided to add Colby College to the list. One part of the application consisted of a personal statement. Here, I wrote about my Earthwatch experience and the value of citizen science, proposing that we can reverse human-caused environmental degradation with two things: optimism and collective effort.

I was accepted to the school as well as a six-week science program where I was able to research causes for the decline of eelgrass on Mount Desert Island, study the environmental chemistry of Maine lakes, and even investigate applications of green chemistry. By the end of this program, I found that contributing to an authentic research project made me feel capable and, at the same time, uncertain as each discovery posed more questions.

Earthwatch gave me the confidence and inspiration I needed to pursue a career in the sciences.

If I hadn’t participated in my Earthwatch expedition, I do not think I would have the confidence to attend a private college in Maine – which is on the opposite end of the country from my home state – or have the courage to become a scientist myself. As you may be able to tell, this program was likely a catalyst to my scientific endeavors. It helped me develop realistic expectations for a career in the sciences and took me out of the city to inspire me with the beauty of biology.


Applications are still being accepted for 2017 Ignite Fellowships. To learn more, visit our website.

How Bees And ‘Chili Grenades’ Can Prevent Human-Elephant Conflict

By Connor Spach, Earthwatch Communications Intern

Elephants seen during the expedition Elephants and Sustainable Agriculture in KenyaA strobe light, a roman candle, and a “chili grenade” (which, for those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, is a condom filled with chili powder, small rocks, and a firecracker) – these “repellents” might be methods to save not only your crops, but an elephant’s life, according to research being conducted throughout Africa and Asia. One such research study is Earthwatch’s new expedition: Elephants and Sustainable Agriculture in Kenya, led by Dr. Bruce Schulte.

Bruce has spent over 20 years working with elephants, and beginning in 2017, he will launch this new Earthwatch project, in part to help reduce human-elephant conflict (HEC) in Kenya. Elephants have come into conflict with farmers by eating or damaging crops as farms expand and elephant habitat dwindles.

Another important focus of the study will be on land conservation by implementing the latest methods in sustainable agriculture and forestry. Climate change has resulted in extreme weather events, threatening agriculture production in sub-Saharan Africa. The project aims to find ways around these agriculture impediments by using climate-smart agriculture – a method that reduces pesticide and herbicide use and supports crops that are resistant to climate change while improving soil, land, and water management systems. The soil in this region lacks nutrients and water, and can only sustain agricultural life for a brief period causing farmers to travel deeper into the bush for healthier soil.

An African elephant in Kenya.As farmers shift their agriculture practices into elephant habitat, HEC has increased. Elephants are crucial to the maintenance of their environments by regenerating forests through seed dispersal and trail generation, as well as serving as an important source economically for African tourism. To better protect this species while supporting local farmers and their livelihoods, researchers are testing the effect of repellents on the elephants.

“One of the problems with elephants is that because they are highly intelligent, social, and long-lived animals, they have the ability to problem solve and retain knowledge,” Bruce said. “Through this project, a multifaceted solution will be found.”

Bruce has been experimenting with a number of natural repellents such as strobe lights or natural sound projection ranging from lions roaring to helicopters flying overhead. Although because of their natural intelligence, elephants have learned these repellents have no negative effect on their well-being and begin to ignore them after several interactions. Other repellents used are beehive fences and chili grenades, which remain effective because the elephant will associate being stung or inhaling a foul scent when crossing onto farms.

Aluminum strip fences are another method of repelling elephants from raiding crops.

Aluminum strip fences are another method of repelling elephants from raiding crops.

On average, elephants destroy 10 to 15 percent of a crop yield in one raid, and sometimes as much as 100 percent. By experimenting with repellents along with agricultural practices, Bruce’s project will reduce HEC and work to develop agricultural models alongside local and national officials to broaden conservation practices that will benefit this terrain. If successful, this will ensure stable agriculture and allow humans and elephants to live harmoniously.

“The goal is to make this bigger than any one individual, or group,” Bruce said. “The idea is to establish enough connections with the local people – all the way up to the Kenyan government – to get these practices to become sustainable.”

The Story of How a Painter and Wolf Expert Became Earthwatch’s Chief Scientist: Dr. Cristina Eisenberg

By Connor Spach, Earthwatch Communications Intern

Beginning at a young age, Dr. Cristina Eisenberg has had a passion for science, describing herself as the nerdy kid in second grade who spent her time in the library reading every book on wildlife, anthropology, archeology, and paleontology that she could get her hands on.

Dr. Cristina Eisenberg. (Courtesy Trevor Angel)

Dr. Cristina Eisenberg. (Courtesy Trevor Angel)

“I was fascinated by it,” Cristina said. “But like many people, I got sidetracked away from science.”

Today, Cristina is Earthwatch’s Chief Scientist – overseeing a portfolio of more than 50 research studies around the world, including her own, which focuses on the relationship between fire and wolves in the Canadian Rockies. Her research is playing a crucial role in restoring the once extensive grasslands of Waterton Lakes National Park back to their pre Euro-American settings.

In 1999, with a bachelor’s degree in painting, Cristina relocated to northwest Montana along the continental divide. A naturalist and stay-at-home mom at the time, she learned to track animals that passed through her land – a system developed to ensure her children’s safety. On a cool and misty July morning, as she was working outside in her garden, Cristina watched as a deer burst from the woods into the meadow in front of her home with two wolves in pursuit.

“It ran towards us and came within about 20 feet of us and right behind it was a pair of wolves, a grey one and a black one,” Cristina said. “Later I learned that it was an alpha male and female pair. They had started a pack.”

Cristina determined these wolves were traveling down from Canada and recolonizing the landscape, which was located just 400 miles from Yellowstone National Park.

This rare sighting sparked her interests and she began tracking wolves for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on a volunteer basis. She was a citizen scientist in action. In 2003, she returned to school and obtained her master’s in conservation biology and environmental writing from Prescott University. Cristina’s first book, The Wolf’s Tooth, was based on her master’s thesis. She then went on to pursue two doctorates in wildlife and forestry at Oregon State University.

While completing her doctorate, Cristina hired interns with field experience to support her research, several of whom had volunteered on Earthwatch expeditions. While she had heard of Earthwatch in the past, this was her first real exposure to the organization.

But her ties to Earthwatch were only just beginning. In 2010, she gave a talk on Bainbridge Island, Washington, where she met Earthwatch’s Research Director Dr. Stan Rullman. Three years later, she spoke again at a fundraiser in Seattle about the relationship with her volunteers and their importance in her research, which Stan also attended. He recognized her passion for environmental science and for citizen science, and suggested she write a proposal for an Earthwatch research project. In 2015, Cristina launched her first Earthwatch expedition: Tracking Fire and Wolves through the Canadian Rockies.

“The more we learn, the more we realize what we don’t know.” – Cristina Eisenberg

During the Westward expansion, large carnivorous predators were wiped out to eliminate human settlement interactions as well as increase the availability of game. These actions resulted in a boom in herbivore populations. At the same time, fire was suppressed in order to protect forest resources and human interests. Funded by Parks Canada, Earthwatch, the Kainai First Nation, and the AGL Foundation, Cristina’s research examines the effects that these conditions have had on the species within Waterton Lakes National Park, a biodiversity hotspot located in Alberta, Canada. With the natural recolonization of wolves and use of large prescribed fires, the area has experienced drastic change.

Cristina and her team in the field in the fire site. (Courtesy Donna Fleury)

Cristina and her team in the field in the fire site. (Courtesy Donna Fleury)

In September of 2014, she was hired as Earthwatch’s Lead Scientist, and more recently assumed the role of Chief Scientist. With more than 10 years of field experience under her belt, Cristina is a scientist who is “attached to the natural world.” She has had some exciting experiences in the field, including a memorable 24-hour period in May pulling transect tape in a blizzard as wolves silently hunted behind her, or watching as an elusive alpha female wolf devoured a fully grown elk. Her work more recently includes working alongside the aboriginal Kainai Tribe, where she is supporting efforts to update their timberland management plan to protect their sacred lands.

While Cristina is now stationed at Earthwatch’s headquarters in Boston, each May she returns to the field with a group of volunteers, continuing the conservation of one of the most diverse ecosystems in North America. Her research has and will continue to unfold the ecological mysteries of this area, while posing new questions for years to come.

On the Move in Malawi: A Conservation Success Story

By Alix Morris

Majete Wildlife Reserve, Malawi. A helicopter whirs above the savanna as the pilot “herds” a family of zebras towards a nearby funnel-shaped structure created by the park staff. As thZebra making their way through the final gate prior to loadinge zebras rush into the tunnel, a reserve manager quickly closes a sliding plastic curtain behind them. The animals continue to push forward as additional sliding curtains close one by one behind them, edging them towards a loading ramp. The zebras climb up the ramp and pack into a large transport container hitched to a truck, completing the first stage of an epic, 500 kilometer journey to their new home.

 

Zebra loaded up

A family of zebras from Majete is loaded into a transport truck.


A Park in Crisis

Not long ago, Malawi’s Majete Wildlife Reserve was once devoid of, well, wildlife. Poaching, logging, and charcoal burning were rampant, destroying the region’s iconic animals and their habitat. By the mid-1980s, elephants had been poached to extinction, along with zebras, rhinos, hartebeest, and many other species. Only a few hippos and crocodiles remained.

But in 2003, everything changed. African Parks, a non-profit organization, launched a partnership with the Malawian government and local communities to return Majete to what it once was – a wildlife haven. Their idea was to “re-stock” the park with 14 species of animals that had once lived there.

It was a pioneering effort. But no one knew if it would work.


Earthwatch on the Scene

Since 2013, Earthwatch volunteers have joined Dr. Alison Leslie of Stellenbosch University and the Majete Wildlife Research Programme to support critical research efforts on the ground through the expedition Animals of Malawi in the Majete Wildlife Reserve.  The research team is investigating the ecology of many of the reintroduced species, such as diet, behavior, home range, and territory establishment, all of which will contribute to a wildlife management plan for the reserve.

Leslie - credit Dr. Allison Leslie (16)

Earthwatch volunteers record wildlife observations in Majete.


A Conservation Success Story

Today, 13 years after the initial conservation efforts, 2,500 elephants, buffalos, waterbuck, nyala, hartebeest, zebras – even critically endangered black rhinos – have been reintroduced in the reserve. And many species are doing so well that, to prevent destruction of vegetation in the park, some of the animals are currently being re-located to other protected reserves in Malawi where populations are struggling.

And so begins a massive translocation effort – a human-assisted wildlife migration from Majete in southern Malawi to Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve in the northern part of the country (a journey of approximately 500 kilometers). The massive effort began this month and will continue into 2017.

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“Majete’s success story is a shining example of conservation in practice, incorporating a combination of scientific research, management, law enforcement, and community participation.” – Dr. Alison Leslie

In 2003, African Parks and their partners had a dream for Majete Wildlife Reserve, and 13 years later, that dream has come true, said Alison.

Find out more about this Earthwatch research expedition in Malawi on our website and discover how you can be a part of this pioneering conservation effort.

 

Earthwatch: ‘An experience that will always be a part of you.’

By Jan Boal

Author Jan Boal believes in tuning oneself in to the signs from the universe. Her book, “Safari for the Soul,” explores her journey in finally heeding these signs and taking a leap of faith in herself, deciding to travel the world solo. During her year of self-discovery, she volunteered on three Earthwatch expeditions and was profoundly changed.


Author Jan Boal during an Earthwatch expedition.

Author Jan Boal during an Earthwatch expedition.

“In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” — John Muir

I recently had the absolute pleasure of meeting the staff of Earthwatch Institute at their Boston Headquarters. Not only was I warmed by their sincerity, but I was grateful for their vision and dedication in pursuit of caring for our planet.

In 2011, I volunteered on three expeditions, Blazing the Biodiversity Trail in Brazil, Dolphins of Greece, and Saving Kenya’s Black Rhinos. I was 52 at the time, single and following my calling. I knew it would be like when I went off to college: Anticipation of what was to come, knowing I would be different when I returned, and anxious for all those same reasons along with traveling alone to these far away countries. This was one of the best decisions I have ever made for myself.

Like college and getting an education, it is the same when venturing off with Earthwatch — an education, an experience that will always be a part of you, a broadening of yourself, like a breath of fresh air, a new you. Be prepared that volunteering on an expedition is quite holistic and all-encompassing. You will learn about the animal/environment you signed up for as well as the culture of this environment and its impact and struggles dealing with whatever threatened issue is involved.

 

Black rhinos as seen by Jan Boal on the expedition Saving Kenya's Black Rhinos.

You will experience being around a type of passion we seldom experience, usually only witnessing it in the movies. I am talking about the directors of the sites — these scientists who eat, sleep, and breathe in pursuit of their cause — who do it with such dedication and enthusiasm that once you experience this it will unlock something within yourself.

Admiration and unlimited gratitude is what I felt when I went to sleep each night after returning from my expeditions. I knew these scientists were continuing their calling, their mission in gathering data and saving a part of our world — day, after day, after day, after day.

The hands-on experience, learning something new and foreign, being challenged by this — by the travel, unfamiliar ways, and culture — working on a volunteer team consisting of such a variety of people unknown to you, realization of situation, the direness and frustration of this environmental issue, and the pride and joy you will experience is profound and life changing.

I encourage you to trust in this process and have an experience, a journey of a lifetime. You won’t regret it! Be a piece of the puzzle that helps to solve the problem and save our home we call Earth.

Investigating Threats to Chimps in Uganda

By Earthwatch Expedition Advisor Dustin Colson and Field Team Leader Geoffrey Muhanguzi

As food supplies in Uganda’s Budongo Forest Reserve decline, chimpanzees and other primate species that call it home are increasingly raiding nearby farms, where they come into conflict with the farmers who depend on these crops. Earthwatch teams are investigating what is causing the mysterious decline in fruiting tree productivity in this gently rolling forest to ensure that conservation measures to support forest primates and local communities are put in place. Earthwatch Expedition Advisor Dustin Colson and Field Team Leader Geoffrey Muhanguzi share what it’s like to volunteer on Investigating Threats to Chimps in Uganda and explain the need for ongoing support.

Budongo Conservation Field Station, Uganda


A Chimp Encounter in Budongo
-Dustin Colson, Earthwatch Expedition Advisor

I wake with a start from an unfamiliar sound. The room is filled with hazy light streaming through a mosquito net.

“Where am I?” I wonder. I hear the sound again, the pant-hooting of a group of chimps just outside my window. “Ah, yes. Budongo.”

I’m in the midst of a lively biodiverse environment, the Budongo Forest Reserve — the jewel of northwestern Uganda. The chimps are calling to each other using sounds that start low and build to a climax of shrill screeches. I will have to move quickly if I’m to catch a glimpse of them. I throw on my clothes, upend my boots to check for spiders before slipping them on, and open the door to face the forest’s edge.

I’m not disappointed. A group of Sonso chimps are padding along the well-worn path leading into the lantana, their favorite mid-morning hang out spot. Not more than 20 feet ahead of me, a mother named Oakland and her unnamed infant clinging to her back pause, checking to see if the way is clear. Most adults will ignore you, but the baby chimp glances over her shoulder and makes eye contact with me. Perhaps I’m the first human she’s ever seen.

Oakland with her infant.

Oakland with her infant in the Budongo Forest Reserve.

As my arms rise to bring the camera closer to my face, as does the hair on the back of my neck. My mind and body are finally awakening to the realization that I am witnessing something very few people get to experience in a lifetime. I count myself lucky to be an Earthwatch volunteer stationed at the Budongo Conservation Field Station and snap a picture.

As much as these chimps left an impression on my life, it was good to know that volunteering in Budongo was positively changing their lives as well. Chimpanzees are an endangered species facing numerous anthropogenic threats. The 600 remaining chimps in the Budongo Forest Reserve are threatened by poaching, habitat fragmentation, and an unexplained reduction in the abundance of fruiting trees. Earthwatch scientist Dr. Fred Babweteera and his team of field assistants are conducting a long-term study to determine the underlying causes of the reduction in fruiting trees, while simultaneously providing relief from the threat of poachers and deforestation.

Earthwatch volunteers contribute to the research effort by walking forest transects collecting tree phenology data, conducting pollinator surveys, and observing monkey and chimpanzee foraging behavior. The expedition contribution cost also ensures that the conservation effort is well-funded and well-manned. The veterinary program, the snare patrol team, the transect cutters, and the farmer startup program all rely on a steady stream of charitable contributions from Earthwatch volunteers. As an Earthwatch employee I am aware that all Earthwatch projects work to create a sustainable environment, yet experiencing these programs first-hand was eye-opening.


Babweteera -Credit Dustin Colson9 (3) copy

The Importance of Volunteer Support
-Geoffrey Muhanguzi, Field Team Leader and Budongo Conservation Field Station’s Manager

While in the Budongo Forest Reserve, the volunteer researchers will help the Budongo Conservation Field Station (BCFS) team to investigate the threats to the survival of chimpanzees, including the changes in tree fruiting and flowering, as well as the abundance and distribution of pollinating insects. The team will explore how primates and other wild animals have coped with the changes in flowering and fruiting patterns. Do these animals change their foraging time and place? Do they raid peoples’ crops more often? This information will be useful in developing wildlife conservation strategies, such as human-wildlife conflict management.

Other threats to chimpanzee survival include illegal hunting. Guided by the BCFS snare patrol team, volunteers will participate in looking out for illegal traps (snares) placed in the reserve. Having detected the threats inside the reserve and the potential effects in the Budongo landscape, BCFS has piloted buffer crops with the potential for reducing crop-raiding incidences. Volunteers will conduct interviews with local farmers to assess the potential of buffer crops in reducing crop raids, mitigating human-wildlife conflict with the possibility of increasing chimpanzee survival close to cultivated fields.

We are always grateful for extra hands and eyes in collecting data. We thank those that intend to volunteer and those who have joined us in Budongo in the past.

 

When I Was 17, My Life Changed.

By Taormina Lepore, Earthwatch Student Fellow

At age 17, Taormina Lepore boarded a plane for the very first time on her way to an archaeological excavation as an Earthwatch student fellow, funded by the Durfee Foundation. The two weeks she spent on the dig in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, changed her future career path.


Student fellow Taormina Lepore in 2001 during the Jackson Hole Bison expedition.

Student fellow Taormina Lepore in 2001 during the Jackson Hole Bison expedition.

When I was 17 years old, my life changed.

My eyes were opened to a world outside my comfort zone, a world of science, field work, and new horizons.

When I was 17 years old, I stepped onboard a plane.

It was the first time I’d been on a plane by myself, and this time the flying “aluminum can with wings” would take me from my everyday high school existence in suburban Boston, all the way to an empty, expansive field in the breathtakingly beautiful National Elk Refuge near Jackson, Wyoming. I would be there for two weeks, field camping and working with strangers who would become like family.

It was exhilarating and terrifying and intellectually exciting, all at the same time.

teampic3

When I was 17 years old, I excavated the ancient past.

Without this formative experience, I might not have had the courage to pursue my dreams and goals as a scientist and educator. It started with a few brushes and a few meter-by-meter square plots of archaeological excavation at an ancient midden site, where bison bone fragments and flakes of caramel quartzite lay just beneath the moist soil surface.

When I was 17 years old, I went on an Earthwatch expedition.

And this archaeological expedition kick-started a lifelong passion for experiential education. Thanks to an Earthwatch student fellowship, I was able to test my courage, break out of the norm, and fuel an endless desire to travel, to seek new experiences, and learn about the natural world. I’m almost 32 now, and in the time since my Earthwatch expedition, I’ve gone on to work as a museum educator around the country, as a research paleontologist in graduate school, and as a high school science educator.

teampic4

With each experience, I find myself referring back to that Earthwatch experience as the baseline for stretching my boundaries.

Before Earthwatch, being actively involved in science was just an idea, and a far-away idea at that. Earthwatch made the idea a reality. I became a lifelong advocate for citizen science, high school field experiences, and outdoor education. And I became a scientist, studying paleoecology through dinosaur tracks and fossilized droppings known as coprolites.

In a recent job as a consultant paleontologist, I regularly visited construction sites to monitor for fossil resources.

I kept my Earthwatch research team sweatshirt with me every day, as a reminder of how one field experience can make an impact on a young student’s life, and allow her to be consistently mindful of how citizen science can change the world.

I think about Earthwatch whenever I’m in the field.

As an educator, I help my students reach past their own comfort zones, and branch out in their scientific interests. I want them to motivate themselves and find encouragement for their passions, and take the leap to always ask questions, to go camping, to try field science. From conservation, to paleontology and archaeology, to our global context as human beings, field work and citizen science are the underpinnings of a transformative education. It certainly transformed me in ways I’m still discovering, even today. I think about Earthwatch when I remind my students that they can do these same kinds of things. Scientific field work is within their reach.

If every student could be given the same opportunity I had to join an Earthwatch expedition, I really believe we would have a more compassionate, more scientifically literate, and more passionate world. I’m grateful every day for being given the chance to change my life and ignite my scientific passion with Earthwatch.

Taormina Lepore in the field in 2015.

Taormina Lepore in the field in 2015.


Applications are now open for our 2017 student fellowships. To learn more, visit our website

The Vigilant Fight to Save South Africa’s Rhinos

Contributions by Earthwatch scientists, volunteers, and staff: (in order of appearance) Lynne MacTavish, Dr. Stan Rullman, Cassandra Nichols, Kristen Lalumiere, Phoebe Hart

Widespread poaching is decimating rhino populations. The situation is dire: if poaching continues at its current rate, rhinos may become extinct within the next 20 years. In the heart of South Africa, which is home to three-quarters of the world’s rhino population, Earthwatch teams are engaged in one of the first studies to look at the services rhinos provide to their larger ecosystem, as well as the effects of dehorning on rhino behavior. Five individuals with close ties to this project share their unique perspectives: Lynne MacTavish, co-Principal Investigator for the Earthwatch expedition Conserving Endangered Rhinos in South Africa; Dr. Stan Rullman, Earthwatch Research Director; Cassandra Nichols, Earthwatch Australia CEO; Kristen Lalumiere, field crew lead on the Earthwatch expedition Saving Joshua Tree’s Desert Species; and Phoebe Hart, first-time volunteer on the rhino expedition.

Four rhinos on a preserve in South Africa. (Courtesy of volunteer Alex Kallend)


A Partner in the Fight

–Lynne MacTavish, Earthwatch scientist for the expedition Conserving Endangered Rhinos in South Africa

Earthwatch heard of our plight with rhino poaching and our desperate attempt to try and save our surviving herd of rhino. They leapt into action and launched the Conserving Endangered Rhinos in South Africa project. Over the past five months, four teams have visited the wildlife reserve and assisted us in collecting urgently needed data to access the impacts of dehorning rhinos, and to evaluate the importance of rhino to a savannah ecosystem. In a short space of time, huge amounts of data have been collected which is invaluable to the scientists as they race against time to provide scientific evidence to support management decisions in a bid to try and save the rhino from extinction.

From a reserve management point of view, the teams have given us so much moral support. Before the project began, we felt that we were fighting this war on our own. We now feel that we have supporters from all over the world, which has given us renewed energy and hope to carry on fighting. Some of the highlights for me personally as a Principal Investigator have been watching the volunteers fall in love with the rhino and see them recognize the different characters in each and every animal. I have received messages asking “Has Willis joined up with his family?” and “Has Brutus been accepted by the rest of the herd?” It has been inspiring to see how passionate the volunteers become about trying to create awareness around the world and assist us in any way they can once they get home.

Rhino Jodi with her calf Jimbo. (Courtesy Lynne MacTavish)

Rhino Jodi with her calf Jimbo. (Courtesy Lynne MacTavish)

One of the biggest highlights was finding Jimbo with the February team. He was only a few days old and his mother Jodi had brought him out to show us. The sun was setting and a Cape Turtle Dove was calling and there was not a sound from the volunteers. This was because we were all sitting in awe, staring at this tiny little rhino and recognizing the importance of this new life. To all of us it signified a new beginning and a reason to keep on fighting.


Vigilance and South Africa’s Rhinos

–Dr. Stan Rullman, Earthwatch Research Director

vigilance/vig·i·lance/vijələns/ noun. “The action or state of keeping careful watch for possible danger or difficulties”

At the core of Dawn Scott’s rhino project in South Africa, researchers are assessing whether dehorned rhinos exhibit a higher level of vigilance than horned rhinos, particularly solitary or small groups when compared to larger groups.

To assess vigilance in rhinos, you look at their ears.

Dr. Stan Rullman and Lynne MacTavish.

Dr. Stan Rullman and Lynne MacTavish.

The ears of a vigilant rhino are constantly moving, back and forth, always scanning for that snap of twig, that rustle in the grass, a metallic click… even the alarm call of other animals, that might give away the presence of a threat. Overly vigilant animals are often so at the expense of other important behaviors, like eating. They also exhibit elevated levels of corticosteroids – stress hormones – that are critical in fueling a fight or flight response, and debilitating when such elevated levels become the standard that defines a creature’s “base state.”

To assess vigilance in those in charge of the protection of rhinos, though, you must look at their eyes.

The eyes of the staff at the private game reserve where the majority of the research takes place, and where the rhinos are all dehorned, all bear the marks of sleeplessness, of fatigue, and above all else, of a deep concern for the safety of those in their charge. Nightly anti-poaching patrols, daytime check-ins of mothers and their calves, day after day, and week after week, take their toll. Dark circles, bloodshot whites and an overall weariness still don’t mask out their commitment to maintain that vigilance against those that want those horns, for those eyes have all seen what happens when that vigilance wanes. Those eyes have all seen the coarsely hacked face of animals they have known since birth. They have seen, as the sun parches and the skin cracks open, the still form of that next generation that will not have a chance to see the sun, or to see a moonrise over the South African veld.

A rhino on a preserve in South Africa. (Courtesy Alex Kallend)


Fighting to Save a Species

–Cassandra Nichols, Earthwatch Australia CEO

IMG_9154 copyI have traveled to many places across the globe and been enchanted by the beauty of our world. From the salt plains of Bolivia to volcanoes in Hawaii, to glaciers in New Zealand and cloud forest in Costa Rica, to tropical beaches in Australia and deserts of Dubai. But Africa will always stand out for me. There is something about the place that seeps into your soul. A longing that you never know you had is awakened. Perhaps it’s because of our ancestry, or perhaps we grew up watching too much David Attenborough and it feels like a second home. Either way, when I had the chance to return to this wild and captivating land, I jumped at it.

Earthwatch’s Conserving Endangered Rhinos in South Africa took me back to Africa not only as a tourist, but as someone who was taking action for the wildlife that I so love. I have been undertaking conservation and scientific research for over 10 years now, and this expedition provided an opportunity to study and learn about one of Earth’s largest herbivores. I was expecting it to be a humbling learning experience, but I did not expect it to evoke so much emotion, to be moved to the degree in which co-lead scientist Lynne MacTavish and her father and reserve manager Dougal MacTavish achieved.

Rhino’s are disappearing. Every four hours, one rhino is killed by illegal poaching.

At this rate, wild rhinos will be extinct by 2026. My children won’t have the opportunity to see this magnificent creature anywhere but a zoo. We are losing the fight, but thanks to people like Lynne and her team, perhaps there is a chance. Their strength to continue fighting for this species in the face of adversity, to put their lives on the line (literally) and to never give up, even when surrounded by corruption and deceit, is one of the most inspiring tales I have ever encountered.

The project opened my eyes to the real rhino horn poaching crisis and challenged my views on private game reserves and the wildlife trade itself. In Africa, political difficulties prevent the creation of new national parks, so future protection of habitat and species is up to individuals. The role of private game reserves in African conservation is significantly underestimated. It was private game reserves that brought the white rhino numbers back from a staggering >50 individuals in 1971. Now, it is these owners who are fighting the battle again to save the species.

Scott - credit MacTavish Lynne (14) copy


From Joshua Tree to South Africa

–Kristen Lalumiere, Field Crew Lead on the Earthwatch expedition Saving Joshua Tree’s Desert Species

As a field crew lead on the Earthwatch project Saving Joshua Tree’s Desert Species, I was interested to see how another project’s lead scientist and field crew relayed science and their project objectives to the participants, as well as how they ran their daily schedules and activities. From this, my aim was to see how we might be able to make our own project in Joshua Tree National Park better. So, on January 1st, I found myself on a plane en route to the project Conserving Endangered Rhinos in South Africa.

Mother rhino and calf photographed during expedition. (Courtesy Kristen Lalumiere)As luck would have it, my expedition group ended up being the 50th group held on the private wildlife reserve of this project’s study site. Given the level and years of experience the reserve team and field crew had with groups, I learned a lot from them that I have been able to apply to our own project here in the Southern California desert. Little details made a huge difference to our overall experience. They worked diligently to ensure we were cared for and knew what would help make our daily lives easier (especially when temperatures topped out at 125°F for a day or two). They made sure we understood what to expect throughout our time in the reserve and they conveyed clearly how our time and efforts were contributing to rhino conservation.

Even with how vastly different the two projects are, they both allow for the opportunity for people to step up and take action to help make this world a better place.

I saw firsthand how being a participant is a far different experience than being part of a project’s field crew. Being able to participate in a study that directly contributes to rhino conservation was a dream come true for me and changed my life. I felt a part of something bigger – more global – and that my efforts were having a direct positive impact on our Earth. I now have a better understanding of and appreciation for what our own participants experience when they come to the desert and assist us in collecting data on climate change.


A Day in the Life of a Volunteer

–Phoebe Hart, Earthwatch volunteer

Volunteer Phoebe Hart during her time in South Africa.

Volunteer Phoebe Hart during her time in South Africa.

The chance to study such magnificent creatures as rhinos with Earthwatch was an opportunity of a lifetime; and the heroic research team conducting the ground-breaking and innovative research are some of the most passionate and inspirational people I have ever encountered. Each day was a treasure. Waking up in the grey light of dawn, the sound of great horned antelope drinking from a nearby dam intermingles with songbirds singing to their mates. The day is spent tracking and studying, quietly observing rhinos in the diverse environment in which they are vitally intertwined. The adventure and awe of the South African wilderness is breathtaking.

I gained an extensive knowledge of the deep emotional sensitivity and intelligence of these mighty animals and their integral role in the ecosystem.

The rhino’s sentient strength is moving and powerful; traits mirrored by the field scientists and rangers that are fighting day and night to protect them. From the moment I arrived, the Earthwatch team and field researchers welcomed me and other volunteers into their world, eagerly teaching and demonstrating their distinctive skills and expertise with passion and enthusiasm. I learned the foundations of managing a highly complex and biodiverse wildlife reserve, as well as tracking the details of ecological health through organisms as small as a dung beetle and as large as a giraffe. The conservation team led by example, representing courage, kindness, selflessness, and resilience. They quickly instilled a keen sense of environmental stewardship in all of us.

This expedition granted me the ability to partake in one of the most important environmental crises of our time. It was an inspirational and transformative experience to participate in this Earthwatch program to help save the critically endangered rhino, and to work alongside the heroes and heroines on the frontlines of the fight. I will forever be grateful for the lifelong friendships I developed, the ecological knowledge I gained, and the rekindled passion for wildlife conservation that is embodied by my newfound love and admiration of one of the world’s most distinctive ecosystem engineers — the rhino.

Three rhinos on the preserve. (Courtesy Phoebe Hart)

Hurricanes, Zika Virus, Appendicitis: How does Earthwatch Assess Risk and Promote Safety in the Field?

By Dianna Bell

Risk is an inherent part of traveling, and even more broadly, risk is present in every aspect of our lives. At Earthwatch, we’re committed to caring for the safety and welfare of each and every one of our volunteers who dedicate their time to supporting environmental research throughout the world. Whether you’re tracking endangered wildlife in Malawi or responding to a climate crisis in the Peruvian Amazon, unexpected incidents can happen. However, we believe that through careful risk management and diligent planning, Earthwatch volunteers can have a rewarding, educational, and inspirational experience.

Bodmer -Credit Pablo Puertas (11) copy

You might be wondering how, exactly, Earthwatch responds when there’s a safety incident in the field — a medical emergency, perhaps, or a dangerous weather event. How do we assess risks related to terrorist activities near project sites, or threats from disease epidemics, such as Zika virus? To help answer these questions, we’ve collected a few stories of actual incidents that occurred in the field, and the ways in which Earthwatch, our insurance partners at Healix International, and the scientists and staff in the field handled the care of these individuals. We’ve also featured four scenarios related to worries we hear from our volunteers, and what Earthwatch’s response would be in each case.


Volunteer Perspectives:

A Medical Emergency in Malawi

A herd of elephants at the Majete Wildlife Reserve.

A herd of elephants at the Majete Wildlife Reserve.

In the fall of 2015, Patricia Leroy was on the expedition Animals of Malawi in the Majete Wildlife Reserve. She was riding with her teammates in a safari truck, when the vehicle hit a bump, she fell off, landed on her back, and lost consciousness for about three minutes. Despite her traumatic experience, Patricia reflects on Earthwatch’s response to the incident with positivity.

“The group leader made dozens of phone calls and stayed with me [at the clinic] until it was time to go to bed. She came back the next morning to check on how I was feeling and only then returned to the base camp. That day, I was contacted by Healix, Earthwatch’s insurance partner, who wanted to transfer me to South Africa because hospitals there had access to better equipment.

“So I was transferred by air ambulance to Johannesburg airport and from there, directly to a private clinic. I stayed there another ten days, benefiting from physiotherapy every day, until I felt well enough to fly back to Switzerland.

“During this entire period, there was not a day when I was not contacted by people from Earthwatch in Malawi and in the U.S., or by the person from Healix who was in charge of my case. I was very well taken care of, not only medically but also psychologically. Everybody was so kind and helpful. It may sound strange to say this, but I found it an interesting and positive experience!

“I’m now only waiting to have fully recovered to take part in another Earthwatch mission.”

Hurricane Joaquin Strikes in the Bahamas

A volunteer holds a sea turtle on our expedition Tracking Sea Turtles in the Bahamas.

A volunteer holds a sea turtle on our expedition Tracking Sea Turtles in the Bahamas.

When Hurricane Joaquin escalated from a Category 1 to a Category 3 storm within days of the start of the expedition Tracking Sea Turtles in the Bahamas in October of 2015, Earthwatch Lead Scientist Annabelle Brooks worked with staff in the U.S. to ensure the safety of the volunteers.

Even though the storm was due to pass through the Bahamas by late on the day the Earthwatch participants were scheduled to arrive, the field station would be running with very limited staff, the water would be too murky to conduct research, and the roads to and from the airport ran the risk of being flooded.

Earthwatch proactively cancelled the team to avoid safety hazards brought about by potential damage from the storm. The risk, in this case, was too high and the safety of the volunteers was Earthwatch’s priority. The volunteers who were booked on that expedition were offered the option of joining a different team or another expedition of their choosing.

Appendicitis in Brazil

In May of 2015, EY fellow and Earthwatch volunteer Aric Johnstone was trekking through Brazil when he started to experience severe stomach cramps. He was immediately taken to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with appendicitis.

EY Fellows take measurements of the many species of birds in Brazil.

EY Fellows take measurements of the many species of birds in Brazil.

“Earthwatch was, simply put, remarkable in handling an unexpected emergency trip to the hospital in rural Brazil for appendix surgery,” he said. “From start to finish, I felt completely safe and in good hands while one of my project managers stayed with me night and day for four days until I was released — even at the expense of quality sleep as they only had a small reclining sofa!

“I was also reassured by the fact that Earthwatch performs a comprehensive emergency assessment at all of their sites to know where the preferred hospitals are and to know exactly what to do in emergencies like mine. I really can’t say enough about the care and attention I was provided, and reflect on the experience with great fondness and appreciation of the Earthwatch team!”


Safety Scenarios & Responses from Kim Cassello, Earthwatch Director of Risk Management:

Scenario 1: I am interested in traveling to Central and South America, but I worry about contracting Zika. What are the risks associated with expeditions in this area? Is it likely I will get Zika?

Earthwatch monitors the latest health risks in all of the countries in which we work through several international resources, such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO). We encourage our volunteers to base their travel plans off of recommendations provided by these institutions.

The Zika virus causes a mild 2-7 day illness in most people with symptoms including low-grade fever, joint pain, rash, headache, and eye pain. The risk of contracting the Zika virus is relatively low for most people, however, there is evidence that its effect on unborn children is more serious. Women who are pregnant or expecting to become pregnant are advised to consider postponing travel to areas where the virus is active due to the increased risk of microcephaly in the fetus.

Scenario 2: I booked an expedition to Kenya, but I’m thinking of canceling due to past terrorism activity in the country. How does Earthwatch monitor this activity and what would happen in the instance a terror attack occurred while I was in the field?

Earthwatch monitors global events continuously via daily health and security updates for the countries in which we work from non-profit and private sources as well as several government sources — including the U.K. Foreign Commonwealth Office, U.S. State Department and Australia’s Smart Traveller, embassy websites, and more. Our scientists and field staff provide another invaluable resource for security information, as many of them live and work in the project regions. They offer an “on the ground” perspective as well as monitor local media.

Earthwatch maintains a Threat Assessment for every country in which we work. This is a country-level assessment of political and security concerns, geo hazards, availability of healthcare, infrastructure and more. Countries and regions in which we will not work due to safety concerns are added to our “No Go” List. Every project also undergoes a Risk Assessment — which is a project-specific evaluation of the site location, any hazards present, and recommended mitigation measures.

exploring lions - two baby giraffes

In the event a security incident did occur, Earthwatch has several resources to help us respond in an effective and efficient way.

First, we advise you to remain in your hotel room and call Earthwatch’s 24-hour assistance line. If you are already at the field site, the Earthwatch scientist would refer to the project’s Emergency Response Plan and call the local authorities as well as Earthwatch’s 24-hour assistance line.

Our 24-hour on-call Duty Officer would then convene the other members of our International Incident Management Team to respond to the incident. This is a team of dedicated and trained Earthwatch staff who are ready to assist in the event of an incident in the field.

Earthwatch will liaise with you, project staff, the appropriate authorities, embassies, and security advisors to stay abreast of the situation and determine next steps. If action is deemed necessary, our Security Assistance Providers Control Risks Group (CRG) would initiate an evacuation. Emergency evacuations are covered under our Travel insurance policy.

Scenario 3: As a single woman traveling alone, I am afraid to travel outside of the country. I worry about being separated from the group due to travel delays. What safety and communications measures does Earthwatch have in place?

Earthwatch has a 24-hour Duty Officer line available to all participants and project staff. The Duty Officer is a trained Earthwatch staff person who is ready to help at any time, day or night. Travel delays are common and the Duty Officer can offer travel assistance, arrange transport to the field, and relay messages to project staff so they will know exactly where and when to meet you.

All members of the Earthwatch family also have access to Healix International, a world-class travel assistance provider. Participants and project staff can call Healix directly or the Duty Officer can do so on their behalf. Healix can help with adjusting travel arrangements, lost passports, medical emergencies and more.

Scenario 4: I am a parent with a teen who is traveling alone for the first time. I’m worried about my child’s safety while in the field. How well are the field staff trained as far as first-aid goes and what kind of background checks are performed?

All teen team facilitators are trained in first aid as appropriate to the project — this includes basic first aid, lifeguard, or wilderness first aid depending on the location, activities and proximity to medical care. In addition, many project staff are trained in first aid as appropriate to the project, but each project is different. On some projects, the personnel are already trained and on others, Earthwatch funds training for key members of staff. Our target is one or two trained staff on each team.

Teen team facilitators and project staff on teen teams undergo background checks which look for any records of criminal or sexual offenses. Background checks are renewed every three years.

Every project has been assessed for risk and has specific mitigation measures in place. Every project also has a detailed Emergency Response Plan in place in the event an issue occurs.

Eisenberg - credit Scott Kania (48) copy

I never came back…

By Luc Bourassa, Alcoa Foundation Earthwatch Fellow

Alcoa is more than a leader in aluminum production; it’s a leader in sustainability. As an Earthwatch partner, the company has created the Alcoa Employee Sustainability Fellowship program, an initiative that sends 25 Alcoa employees per year on weeklong Earthwatch expeditions in Brazil, Canada, and France. The goal of the initiative is to raise employees’ awareness of key climate change and sustainability issues as they relate to forests, carbon, and ecosystem services, and to empower them to become advocates for Alcoa’s commitment to sustainability. In 2012, Luc Bourassa was awarded this fellowship and it changed his mindset in surprising ways.

Alcoa Foundation Earthwatch Fellow Luc Bourassa measuring trees during his expedition in Brazil.

I came back from my Earthwatch experience almost four years ago. In the summer of 2012, I spent a full week in the Brazilian Atlantic Forest, measuring trees, counting monkeys, and making new friends.

I came back from Brazil almost four years ago but, come to think of it, I actually never came back. The experience changed me in such a way that I am not today the same person I was when I left. That’s what Earthwatch does to you.

I was one of the lucky Alcoa employees who received the opportunity to join an Earthwatch expedition. The experience is quite unsettling, in a good way. You figure it is going to be all about the forest, the plants, the river, or the frogs… that you are going to learn so many things about monkeys, dolphins, bugs, or plants. You get all excited about a full week out there, unwired.

And then you board a plane for the return home, and it hits you: the experience was actually about you, and about your relationship with the world.

Not a week goes by that I don’t think back to that experience, to the friends I made, many of whom I’m still in touch with today, but mostly about the things I learned that I try to apply in my daily life, at home with my wife Stéphanie and our three kids, and through my community engagement.

Teen fellows Amélie and Myriam with their team on an expedition in Puerto Rico.

Teen fellows Amélie and Myriam with their team on an expedition in Puerto Rico.

Because, once you understand that what happens in Brazil can have an impact thousands of miles from there, and that whatever decisions you make today will bear consequences – small or large – for years to come, you start acting differently. You start worrying about the little things. You see that the needed changes are as much about the big corporations as they are about individual citizens.

You may be just one small piece of the puzzle, but that puzzle is incomplete if you’re not a part of it.

I came back from Brazil wanting to make a difference. I had the strong belief that I needed to pay it forward. To multiply what I received. To awaken young minds and fully engage them in that mindset as they become tomorrow’s leaders.

Elisabeth and Kelsy studied whales and dolphins in California.

Elisabeth and Kelsy studied whales and dolphins in California.

So upon my return, as a board member of a local NGO involved in sustainability issues, I designed – along with Earthwatch staffers – an initiative that would provide funding for two teenagers a year from my community to participate in Earthwatch expeditions. I pitched it to the board, but they had some initial reservations: What difference would two teenagers make? What would they learn across the globe that they could use back home?

I was prepared. Two teenagers a year for 20 years adds up to 40 teenagers – 40 engaged teenagers who will become teachers, lawyers, and city counsellors, who will indeed make a difference! I told them about my own experience: traveling to Brazil gave me context, but the real lessons had been learned from within.

Alexy and Naomie in the Pyrenees Mountains.

Alexy and Naomie in the Pyrenees Mountains.

The board members agreed to a three-year pilot. In the summer of 2013, 2014, and 2015, we sent Elisabeth, Kelsy, Naomie, Alexy, Amélie and Myriam to California (Whales and Dolphins Under the California Sun), the French Pyrenees (Wildlife in the Changing Andorran Pyrenees), and Puerto Rico (Puerto Rico’s Rainforest).

I put all six individuals on the plane myself and I lunched with all six upon their return. I know that it made a difference in their lives and has helped to shape the adults they are now becoming. They are now Earthwatch advocates. We involve each pair of fellows in the following year’s selection process and they now want the program to grow as much as I do. We were recently rewarded with good news. The board has confirmed funding for a second three-year cycle!

All of that started four years ago in the Brazilian jungle because my employer had – and still has – the belief that we can make a difference, one individual at a time.

And because a seed was planted, took root, and has grown ever since.

I came back from Brazil four years ago, but I never really came back. And I know that any Earthwatch fellow will tell you the exact same thing. Although the names, the places and the stories may not be the same, the change they impart will be.

That’s what Earthwatch does to you.

From left to right: Luc with with Alexy, Myriam, Naomie and Amélie – four of the first six participants.

From left to right: Luc with Alexy, Myriam, Naomie and Amélie – four of the first six participants.

Using Cutting-Edge Technology to Protect the Sharks of Belize

By Dr. Demian Chapman

Dr. Demian Chapman has devoted his career to protecting the sharks around the world, including those living in Belize. He’s teamed up with fishermen and the government to try to strengthen shark fishing regulations and monitor marine reserves. Now he is engaged in the first study of its kind: measuring how long an overfished shark population takes to recover in a newly minted marine reserve, Southwater Caye. He is also investigating other ways that marine reserves affect sharks and their close cousins, the rays. To do this, he will rely on cutting-edge technology.

DEMIAN-CHAPMANMy name is Demian Chapman. I am an Associate Professor at Florida International University and the Lead Scientist of the Earthwatch Project Shark Conservation in Belize. I have been working on a wide variety of conservation-related research topics for the past two decades, but of all of my projects, I probably feel most at home when I am studying sharks in Belize. This stems from the strong sense of family I have developed with the Belizean people, especially my brothers-from-another-mother and research partners Captain Norlan Lamb and First Mate Ashbert Miranda, as well as the deep love I have for this tiny nation in the Caribbean.

I first came to Belize in July 2000. Now, more than a decade and more than 20 expeditions later, I have fallen in love with this country, its barrier reef ecosystem, and its people. Since I was a small boy in New Zealand, sharks have been my passion. When I arrived in Belize, one would only occasionally see sharks in the fish market, and the prices paid for them were modest. This has changed. Today, fishermen are exploiting sharks in Belize almost without any regulation. My team has deployed baited remote underwater videos (BRUVs)—underwater video traps to count sharks and other fish—on reefs where gillnets and fishing are allowed, and found that sharks are nearly absent on these reefs.

Thankfully, there is still hope for the sharks of Belize.

Our BRUV deployments have found robust and thriving shark populations on reefs where gillnets and/or fishing are banned—marine reserves. It is our goal to survey these no-fishing zones and to investigate how and why they are working for shark conservation. We also aim to elucidate the ecological role of sharks through chemical analysis of their tissue. To these ends, we have thrown on our work gloves to deploy BRUVs and catch sharks on some of the most beautiful reefs in the Caribbean.

Nurse release high

Most importantly, we will be communicating our results to the people of Belize so that they can take action. With the help of Earthwatch volunteers, we will ensure that the coral reefs of Belize remain a rich hunting ground for these majestic predators.

Technology in Conservation Research

This year I am really excited to be asking new questions that will involve introducing some new technology to our research portfolio. The answers will address gaps in our understanding of the conservation needs and ecological role of sharks and rays on coral reefs, which will help us better manage these animals in Belize and beyond.

Recent analysis by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has revealed that the world is rapidly losing its sharks and rays. This is a serious problem and may trigger strong changes in ocean ecosystems.

We know very little about the role of sharks and rays in marine ecosystems and how new taghumans affect these roles. Most people have probably heard that the overfishing of sharks on the east coast of the U.S. led to a ray population explosion. The rays then ate all of the shellfish, leading to the collapse of a century-old fishery. Simple right? Well, perhaps not. One study (Grubbs et al. 2016) showed there are a number of substantial problems with this interpretation, ranging from questions about whether sharks eat enough rays, to the rays themselves being unable to reproduce fast enough to match the purported population “explosion.”

Science is now going back to the drawing board to learn about how sharks, rays and humans interact with one another and their environment.

This is where we come in at Shark Conservation in Belize. Funded by Earthwatch and the Vulcan Foundation, and supported in the field by more than a hundred Earthwatch volunteers over the years, we have used BRUVs to survey sharks and rays in marine reserves and fished areas throughout Belize. Our key discoveries have been that Caribbean reef sharks are significantly more common inside Belize’s marine reserves and, as a result, stingrays in these management zones fear being eaten by them. So much so that they avoid going into deeper water where the reef sharks live.

These studies show that human activities like fishing or establishing a marine reserve on a reef can alter local densities of sharks, which then cause shifts in habitat use by rays.

As our project enters its seventeenth field season in 2016, we are going to probe this interaction between people, sharks and rays even more deeply. First, we want to know whether there are reef sharks inside reserves because they spend their whole lives there, living and breeding under a sort of protective umbrella. An alternative possibility is that reef sharks are born all over Belize, but end up concentrating inside reserves where the feeding is good because there are more fish. To answer that question we need to track individual reef sharks from birth to after they mature to see if they spend their lives on the reef where they were born. We will start doing this in the summer of 2016 at Glover’s Reef Marine Reserve (Teams 1-3). This will entail catching young reef sharks and surgically implanting acoustic transmitters. Each transmitter emits a unique coded signal every few minutes that can be picked up by receivers that we will anchor on the reef. The receivers will pick up each shark’s unique signal and record where the individual is and when. The transmitters will last for about ten years, more than enough time to see if the baby sharks born at Glover’s reef grow up there.

markBRUV

Our second question revolves around stingray behavior in the presence or absence of sharks. Our baited remote video data has shown us that the rays mostly stay in the shallows on reefs where sharks patrol the deeper reef. We are interested in figuring out if they feed less and hide more in these areas. To answer this question we will be fitting southern stingrays with accelerometer tags during Teams 3 and 4 at Glover’s Reef (where there are sharks) and Southwater Caye (where sharks are nearly absent due to fishing). Accelerometer tags measure movement.

You might not know this but you are probably in possession of an accelerometer right now. Can you guess where it is?

It’s in your smart phone. An accelerometer makes the screen rotate when you move your VLUU L100, M100  / Samsung L100, M100phone. This same technology will record the body angle and swimming speed of free living stingrays and tell us how much time they spend hiding or resting, moving, and feeding. We will then be able to see if stingrays living in marine reserves where sharks are still common spend more of their time buried in the sand and less time eating worms, small fish and shellfish. If this is the case, it could alter how rays affect the seafloor and the animals and plants that live there.

As we purchase our acoustic tracking gear and accelerometer tags to take to Belize this summer, I am excited to think that they will help us learn more about the secret lives of sharks and stingrays.

I am sincerely grateful to the Earthwatch volunteers that have helped us get to the point to be able to ask these questions. I also look forward to working with the volunteers that will help us answer them.

You can still join these shark and ray tagging efforts in 2016 and 2017 by checking out our Earthwatch expedition page.

Discover the Top 5 Reasons to Join a Teen Expedition with Earthwatch!

Measuring reef c earthwatchWhether you’re looking to follow your passion or find material for that college admissions essay, our Earthwatch teen expeditions offer a two-week experience that can change your life. But don’t take it from us. Discover the top 5 reasons to sign up for an Earthwatch expedition, according to our teen volunteers!

In 2006, Moria Robinson, then a sophomore in high school, joined an Earthwatch expedition in Arizona, where she studied the relationships between plants, caterpillars, and parasitoids (wasps and flies that feed on caterpillars). Moria, who loves science, loves being outside (and loves bugs!), was overjoyed to discover more about these different levels of the food web. What she didn’t know at the time was just how influential this experience would be. Now, 10 years later, Moria is running her very own caterpillar research lab at University of California, Davis, where she’s pursuing a Ph.D. in biology as a result of her Earthwatch expedition.

Earthwatch expeditions empower teens to tackle some of the world’s most pressing environmental issues. Armed with the support and mentorship of leading scientists in the field, teen volunteers step beyond their comfort zones while contributing to meaningful science. In the process, they experience unique locations and cultures, pursue their passion for science and the environment, and develop lifelong friendships. Some, like Moria, even find a future career path.

Discover the top 5 reasons to join an Earthwatch expedition, according to some of our recent teen volunteers:

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(1) Find your passion

Earthwatch teen volunteers collect critical research data alongside leading scientists in the field – connecting to nature and the environment in ways that often exceed their expectations. In 2014, Chloe Golde joined Tracking Sea Turtles in the Bahamas, where she was trained in sea turtle research methods designed to better understand populations of endangered green and hawksbill sea turtles.

“This experience showed me how much our actions actually impact our environment. I was able to learn a lot from the scientists’ presentations, the facility we were at, and just being around so many scientists at once who were so willing to share and passionate about the work they do. Being mixed in with kids from all over forced me to open up and boosted my self-esteem. I had a great time.”

(2) Find material for that college essay (or maybe even a future career path)

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As college admissions become more and more competitive, teens are finding new ways to diversify their experiences and develop well-rounded applications. Helen Donovan dug into Excavating a Roman Empire in Great Britain in 2014 and helped archaeologists excavate the settlement of Arbeia in hopes of finding ancient artifacts.

“This experience opened new doors for me in choosing my eventual career path. As a 16 year old with the college application process readily approaching, this trip gave me hands-on archeological experience and an opportunity to work alongside and learn from experts in the field.”

Gil Osofsky joined Shark Conservation in Belize in 2015, which confirmed his love of research and his desire to pursue a career in marine biology.

“I think the most positive impact of this experience was that I was able to confirm marine biology as my intended career path. This expedition allowed me to fully immerse myself in actual research, and it felt good to be helping in an actual conservation effort. It was evident through the briefing and the lectures that the work we did around the island could have a real impact, and that was very inspiring. I was also impressed by the scientists and people I met who were so dedicated to their work and helping the planet.”

(3) Step outside of your comfort zone

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For many teens, Earthwatch expeditions can be transformational experiences. These dynamic environments encourage our volunteers to step outside the comforts of home. Myriam Bourassa fielded on Puerto Rico’s Rainforest in 2015, where she helped to survey several different species of birds, lizards, and frogs to determine the overall biodiversity of the Las Casas de la Selva rainforest.

“I think I learned from everyone there, but it has changed the way I see things. In fact, I learned that it is really important to push your boundaries in life. This expedition was a little bit out of my comfort zone and it made me push my limits more than I taught I was able to. The thing is that it is actually pretty great and fun to go out of your comfort zone! Also, we live in a consumer society where everyone wants to own things and don’t really think of all the impacts on our environment. It made me realize how much more we should care about our earth. I think it also taught me to always work for what you believe in, like the scientists are doing, because that is how you make a difference and you succeed. It was a life-changing experience that made me open my eyes to a lot of things.”

(4) Gain a new perspective

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On our teen expeditions, volunteers are exposed to new cultures, new people, and a new way of looking at our toughest conservation issues. James McErlean developed a newfound confidence after joining the Shark Conservation in Belize expedition in 2014.

“I’m not really the most social kid most of the time, and yet I felt myself actively involved in every conversation with the group, whether recreational or part of the actual expedition. The most positive impact this trip had on me was what I learned. It truly piqued my interests in any types of marine life. And in fact, after I got back home to New York, I switched over one of my classes to Marine Science/Oceanography, and so far I love it. I never would have thought to have such an interest in the ocean.”

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Yesenia Ulloa trekked to Climate Change: Sea to Trees in Acadia National Park in 2015 and realized that she could help solve the conservation issues that seem larger than life.

“The most positive impact that this experience had on me is that it left me knowing that I am fully capable of meeting the demands of a field researcher, as it requires tenacity and organization.”

(5) Make lifelong friendships

Traveling a01 Team-c. EWway from home and working together towards a common goal can bond teens in ways traditional summer camp experiences cannot. George Vassilatos learned that friendships born while digging into Roman history, on Excavating a Roman Empire in Great Britain in 2015, can stand the test of time.

“The experience changed my life…The friendships I made on the dig still continue to this day. It also catalyzed an interest in pursuing archaeology as a career.”

For more information about our teen expeditions, check out this recent article from Teen Vogue featuring Earthwatch!

http://www.teenvogue.com/story/spring-break-volunteer-ideas-vacations

Teachers Take the Plunge for Science

By Bruce Paton

In October 2015 six Australian school teachers spent a week sailing and snorkelling in Queensland’s Moreton Bay in order to give their students a new perspective on the impact human development is having on our environment. The teachers were participants in Earthwatch’s Sailing for Seagrass expedition, assisting scientists in studying the effects of urbanisation in Brisbane, Australia on the marine ecosystems of Moreton Bay. Their students shared the experience through Skype calls, video blogs, and daily posts on Earthwatch Australia’s TeachLive website.

Bruce Paton is the program manager for TeachLive and he shares his experience of the latest expedition.

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Team heading out on the speed boat to take seagrass samples.

“Timmy, sit.”

“Shona, I know you’re interested, but you need to stay still and quiet or nobody else will be able to hear what I have to say.”

“Class, everyone wave at Miss McKinley!”*

These are the types of things we heard during a Skype call between teacher Megan McKinley, who was participating in Earthwatch’s Sailing for Seagrass expedition, and her class at Rowville Primary School. I couldn’t help thinking that these were not the sort of things you’d normally hear on a scientific research expedition. Then again, this expedition was not exactly standard.

The reason for Megan’s unusual conversation was that she was participating in the TeachLive program, where teachers assist scientists to research the impact people are having on the environment while using online tools to share this experience with their students.

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Megan identifying seagrass through a camera.

Through citizen science programs, Earthwatch helps to transform people’s views of science and nature. One of the reasons that I’m particularly fond of TeachLive is that the amazing teachers who take part spread this transformation far further than we ever could.

Every night, after a hard day of volunteering, the teachers jumped onto their laptops and updated their blogs to be read by students back at their school. They also held Skype video calls where they connected directly with their classrooms, created videos, made maps, and generally involved their students in the expedition in a way that made it feel like we had hundreds of participants rather than just six.

IMG_1127The program helped to open students’ eyes to the connections between people and the environment. It can be a revelation for students to realise that the biggest threat faced by the seagrass beds – which provide vital habitat for dugongs, turtles, and other marine life – is from sediment and other pollution washed into the bay from suburbs located miles from the ocean.

Healthy Waterways, the local NGO that Earthwatch has partnered with for the Sailing for Seagrass expedition, is using the data collected by the teachers and other Earthwatch citizen scientists to create ‘report cards’ for each local government area in southeast Queensland. These report cards detail not only the condition of the municipality’s waterways and the marine ecosystems downstream, but also the threats faced by these ecosystems and the actions that government and the community are taking to address them.

The final reason I love TeachLive – and what really matters most in my opinion – is that it has given teachers a new suite of tools they can use to engage with their students. We reconnected a few weeks after the expedition at an Earthwatch education workshop, and I was delighted to discover that all of the teachers who participated have found ways to incorporate their new knowledge and skills into their teaching. From updating their school curriculum to monitoring their local rivers with underwater cameras, I’m confident that each of these projects will benefit their students for years to come.

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The six teachers who participated in the expedition were from the left: Micah Wilkins from the Mac. Robertson Girls High School and Peter Girolamo from Galen College in Wangaratta. Front: Jemma Chaplin from John Monash Science School, Tracey Gray from Port Fairy Consolidated School, and Megan McKinley from Rowville Primary School. Far right: Garrett Drago from Williamstown High School.

We have another TeachLive Sailing for Seagrass expedition coming up in October 2016 and I’m really looking forward to meeting more fantastic teachers and helping them to engage their students in geography, science and nature.

To read the teachers’ blogs or to register your interest in the 2016 TeachLive expedition, please visit: www.teachlive.org.au

To check out the latest series of Healthy Waterways report cards, please visit: http://healthywaterways.org/reportcard.

Earthwatch Australia acknowledges the support of the Victorian Department of Education and Training through the strategic partnerships program. TeachLive is conducted in partnership with the Geography Teachers Association of Victoria.

Mongolia: ‘A Place Full of Treasures’

By Kofi Opoku-Ansah

In September 2015, photographer Kofi Opoku-Ansah and his girlfriend Kim traveled to Mongolia on Earthwatch’s Wildlife of the Mongolian Steppe expedition. Kofi’s favorite moments include radio collaring and releasing argali sheep (a male/female pair were named after Kofi and Kim), working alongside Mongolian researchers, students, and horsemen to achieve critical conservation goals, and, on a very personal level, proposing to his girlfriend of four years underneath a rocky mountain near the camp. (Spoiler alert: she said yes!)

A Photographer’s Dream Realized

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I’d never been to Asia and was seeking adventure, so joining an Earthwatch expedition in Mongolia was both far enough from my home in London and adventurous enough to meet this need. Given my love for animals and desire to give something back to nature, Earthwatch’s Wildlife of the Mongolian Steppe expedition seemed to fit every piece of my ideal expedition.

After a year of planning, reading, and researching about Mongolia, the day finally came
for my girlfriend, Kim, and I to travel to Mongolia for our expedition, where we would focus on capturing and tagging argali sheep.

The excitement was overwhelming when we finally reached Mongolia after a 12-hour flight and transfer in Moscow. A few days after arriving in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, we met our team members for a casual dinner, introduction and briefing before our trip to the camp at Ikh Nart Nature Reserve where the expedition would take place. Traveling on old Russian trains from Ulaanbaatar for seven hours south into the semi stepped Gobi, followed by an hour drive to camp was a nice experience, yet it was only the beginning of our adventure!

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Our 12 days at the camp in Ikh Nart was incredible, and we would love to volunteer again in the near future. Meeting people from all walks of life who are working for the same cause was something truly special. Our days consisted of team briefings, cinereous vulture and snake sightings, argali and ibex capture, and walking transects, to name just a few. The organization on this project was flawless. The teamwork and effort by the volunteers and researchers was inspiring.

Working side-by-side with Mongolian volunteer students, scientists from the Denver Zoo, and the Mongolian horsemen proved how greatness can be achieved when working with people with the same conservation goals. In moments like these, language barriers are broken and determination for success becomes the prime focus on everyone’s mind. This is especially true when it involves making a difference in the lives of endangered species.

Our goal as a team was to capture at least five argali and ibexes to be radio collared. Our typical day involved driving to a dedicated area, setting two nets parallel to each other that spanned across 160 meters, and then taking positions to hide (sometimes for hours) whilst the horsemen went in search of the argali and drove them towards the nets. When we caught an argali, a group of us would take blood samples, weigh, record temperatures, attach radio collars, provide water to cool the animals down, and finally release them in a span of only 5-15 minutes.

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Scientists, volunteers, and local staff, including skilled Mongolian horsemen, capture argali sheep by driving them towards nets. They then quickly tag them, monitor their health, and release them back into the wild.

This process required great planning, strategy and cooperation from all team members. There were many idle moments with no action, but with determination and persistence we successfully captured and tagged our target of five argali and ibex within a week.

The Surprise Proposal

Soon after arriving in Mongolia, Kim and I celebrated our fourth anniversary. And I had a Kim_Kofi_Mongolia_proposalsurprise in mind for her. For days, I had been checking and double-checking on the safety of an engagement ring I had brought with me so I could propose to Kim in Mongolia. One morning before our daily tasks, Kim and I went for a walk. Without ever thinking about the outcome if she was to say no, I went ahead and proposed, and with everything I had imagined, she said yes!

We announced the news to the rest of the team during lunch, and received many compliments and well wishes from our team members.

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The Earthwatch camp at Ike Nart Nature Reserve in Mongolia

Experience of a Lifetime

My experience on this trip far exceeded my expectations and there were many highlights. Getting engaged, celebrating my birthday, having an argali sheep named after me, seeing a grey wolf, meeting and working with the Mongolian horsemen, going disco dancing in the middle of the Gobi – these are just a few examples.

But the opportunity to do something worthwhile has to be one of the greatest highlights in my life so far.

Many have asked ‘Why Mongolia of all places?’ My answer is, ‘Why not?’ Mongolia is one of the most beautiful countries in the world, with its vast lands, nature and archaeology. It is a place full of treasures.

The argali conservation project is a really special one. The researchers and volunteers who take part and dedicate their time and interest in it have worked so hard and have contributed so much – they have made a massive impact in the preservation of these endangered species. I recommend it in so many ways, and I can’t wait to go back in the near future!

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Kofi and Kim (featured bottom row, third and fourth from left) and their Earthwatch research team in Mongolia.

Kofi and Kim were so moved by their experience that they now donate 10 percent of the proceeds from their silk scarf business to the Ikh Nart Nature Reserve in Mongolia.

Declining Leopard Populations in South Africa Prompt a Call to Action for Earthwatch

By Dr. Stan Rullman

In November 2015, Earthwatch Research Director Dr. Stan Rullman traveled to the Soutpansberg Mountains in South Africa to join the expedition Conserving Leopards and Monkeys in South Africa. These mountains supported one the highest densities of leopards on the continent. But this is changing, and Earthwatch researchers and volunteers are helping to determine why.

Interesting creature spotted on South Africa project camera trap!

Wildlife researchers around the globe are frequently employing the use of camera traps— 1cameras equipped with motion or infrared sensors—to capture photos and video of elusive wildlife without disturbing them. In some cases, rare species are captured on camera, often to the delight of research teams. In November 2015, researchers Dr. Sam and Katy Williams came across an image of a rather interesting creature, documented for the first time in South Africa. The pictures reveal Dr. Stan Rullman (the author of this blog post) cautiously crawling along one of the swaths the research team uses to assess overall biodiversity and leopard abundance in the Soutpansberg Mountains.

These mountains have historically supported one the highest densities of leopards on the continent. But this is changing, and Sam, Katy, and their advisor, Dr. Russell Hill from Durham University, have asked for Earthwatch’s support to help determine why.

Conflict between humans and wildlife in the Soutpansberg Mountains

2-Lajuma_SAf_mapLeopards are frequently accused of preying on livestock, which can lead to retaliation against these animals. Earthwatch volunteers assist researchers in “ground-truthing” leopard diet by collecting, cleaning, and examining leopard scat to determine exactly what the leopards have been eating. The results of these analyses indicate that leopards are primarily preying upon wild game, which is a good thing (unless, of course, you are a bushbuck).

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Leopard diets based on scat collected within the Soutpansberg Mountain, South Africa

But sometimes there is other evidence. A dead calf on a rancher’s land with marks that suggest leopard. An upset rancher calls to Dr. Hill’s team. That is a good thing too, because it shows that their outreach to the farming and ranching community may indeed be working. In the past, there would simply be a gunshot in the night. The team sets up a camera on the calf, to see if the perpetrator returns. And it does. A three-year-old male leopard known as BB.

“We have further confirmation of our leopard population attacking livestock, although our dietary analysis continues to detect no livestock or expensive game. This confirms the need for extensive and ongoing data sets to examine these issues since short-term data sets can be misleading. It also highlights the importance of working with communities to improve their husbandry techniques and construct adequate bomas [protective corrals] for their livestock.” –Dr. Russell Hill

DSC02231Leopards aren’t the only wild animals that impact local farmers. The researchers are also studying several species of monkeys and their propensity for crop-raiding, which occasionally impacts local crop productivity and increases the tension between local farmers and wildlife. While chacma baboons are the most frequently reported raiders, the team has also been habituating troops of samango monkeys and vervet monkeys so as to increase their ability to assess just what these smaller species are actually feeding upon. Earthwatch volunteers have been instrumental in this habituation process—particularly with the samangos. They join researchers in tracking the monkeys on foot through field and forest—an amazing opportunity to spend an intimate morning or afternoon with these primate relatives of ours.

A Hotspot for Biodiversity

In addition to this human-wildlife conflict and mitigation focus, the research team is alsoDSC02271-2 assessing the importance of this rather insular mountain system as a hotspot for biodiversity in northern South Africa. Surrounded by large agricultural areas and game farms in the lowlands, this mountain range is high enough in elevation to grab much-needed moisture from the air, resulting in rich forest pockets, permanent streams and tumbling waterfalls— and a critical supply of water to the more intensively altered landscapes below.

A large array of camera traps is used to determine what species are using this landscape, and Earthwatch volunteers assist with camera deployment, maintenance, image recovery, species identification and numbers. While some of the cameras are located along the rocky dirt roads that traverse the mountain range, most are located away from the roads, resulting in glorious hiking opportunities through this beautiful and wildlife-filled landscape (always accompanied by research staff). What they are finding on those cameras has revealed that an amazing diversity of species are using this mountain refuge, including a rich assortment of medium-sized carnivores like African civets, large spotted genets, black-backed jackals, honey badgers, caracals, and both brown and spotted hyenas. Surprise cameo appearances have also been made by Africa wild dogs and cheetahs—just to keep volunteers on their toes as they scan through the photos. This is just a partial list of species they’ve captured on their cameras which offers a window into the amazing diversity of African species, from a variety of habitats, that utilize this mountain refugia.

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The camera sometimes captures more-than-one species at a time. See if you can identify these rather unusual animal pairings.

Spotting individuals

While leopards are rarely “spotted” (ahem) in the field, just about every camera trap IMG_1038_Fotorphoto logging session brings an excited gasp from that volunteer reviewing the images as a large spotted cat appears on the computer screen (like this one, from the same camera that “captured” me). That prompts the next level in identification: exactly which leopard is it? The team maintains a catalogue of known individual leopards—identifiable by the unique patterns of their spots, not unlike our fingerprints. It is this last component that is revealing the apparent decline of leopards in the region.

Fewer “known” individual leopards are showing up on the project’s camera traps, suggesting a high turnover of the cats in the mountain system. What would lead to that turnover? According to Dr. Hill:

“The trends suggest that conflict [between people and leopards] has increased, which is having a significant impact on the leopard population. This information is critically important from a management perspective.” – Dr. Russell Hill

And based in part on data from Dr. Hill’s research, South African governmental wildlife managers have responded by imposing a total ban on leopard hunting for 2016, giving researchers a chance to assess what specifically might be driving this decline in leopard numbers.

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Graph showing the apparent declining number of identified (and identifiable) leopards in the research area between 2008 and 2015.

The cats are also getting caught in snares set for other game, which has led to removing snares found within officially protected areas—an increasingly important task that volunteers engage in. Local community members often rely on procuring smaller animals as a source of protein, though snares rarely discriminate between target species and “collateral damage”, and in many regions, such bushmeat hunting and trapping can reduce species abundance—even those not sought out as sources of food.

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Collared leopard with snare around waist. Two weeks after this cat showed up on this camera trap, the radio signal was lost and the leopard had not been detected on camera traps since.

Outcomes and Impact

All that is learned in this critical research gets channeled in all the expected places—scientific publications (see links below), contributions to regional wildlife management plans, conference lectures (including this one) and posters, as well as several student theses and dissertations. But the research teams also share their findings with the local community, through several innovative ways. Field team leader and PhD student Katy Williams compiled the project’s best camera trap images and presented those as a travelling exhibition at local art galleries, shopping centers, coffee shops, and schools, introducing the local residents to the amazing diversity found in the landscapes they call home (a nice fusion of art, science and education).

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Katy also wrote and illustrated a children’s book (Hyaena Time) based on her doctoral research on brown hyenas. Earthwatch helped that unique publication get translated into the four primary languages of the region—Venda, se Sotho, Afrikaans, and English (ensuring a broad readership).

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All of the research and outreach into the local communities highlights the commitment of Dr. Hill’s research team to work to actively assess and reduce the threats to the leopards, brown hyaenas and primates while simultaneously promoting tolerance for these creatures in the increasingly human-influenced systems they live in. Creative strategies for coexistence—based on sound scientific findings—can maintain (and even grow) the livelihoods of the farming communities, while doing the same for these wild denizens of South Africa. For volunteers, this results in a truly unique, meaningful and engaging African experience, in a magnificent hotspot of South African biological diversity.

To learn more on how you can join the research team, please visit the Earthwatch expedition page.

An Introduction to Earthwatch’s New CEO: Scott Kania

By Alix Morris

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Scott Kania recently assumed the role of Chief Executive Officer at Earthwatch. Following a 35-year career in the financial world, Scott is thrilled to embrace his life-long passion for the environment and conservation research in his new role. This week, I had a chance to sit down with Scott to find out more about his commitment to conservation, what inspired him to join Earthwatch, his experience as an Earthwatch volunteer, and his vision for the future of the organization.

 

When did your passion for the environment first begin?

I was probably about 6 years old. As I recall, my mother read me a book on Smokey the Bear. It was the amazing story of a bear that was rescued by forest rangers from the top of a tree during a forest fire in New Mexico. The rangers wrapped up his burnt paws and took care of him. I remember saying to my mother, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ And she said, ‘You want to be a bear?’ And I said, ‘No. I want to be one of the guys who rescued the bear.’ It was the moment I first recognized the importance of forest conservation. Eventually, that led me to pursue a degree in Natural Resource Management. But jobs were scarce back then. I had bills to pay, so I got a “temporary” job in financial services, and stayed there for over 35 years.

How did you maintain your commitment to conservation while you were working in financial services?

I was a very active volunteer. I looked for every opportunity possible to get involved and make a difference. I was on our town’s conservation commission, our open space commission, I was a charter board member of a non-profit – River’s Alliance of Connecticut, I did volunteer work for the Nature Conservancy. You name it – I put my hand up and volunteered.

As often as I could, I would take my kids along with me. I wanted to show them that I wasn’t simply a financial services person. My passion was around the environment. I promised them that when I left the financial services industry, I would pursue this passion full time. Little did I know that I would soon discover Earthwatch. And when I did, I absolutely fell in love with the mission.

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I knew I wanted to do something with the environment and I wanted to connect people to the environment. So when I came across this organization that did exactly what had been in my head all of those years, I was hooked. It was one of those strange things where I didn’t know Earthwatch existed, but I had been looking for it my whole life.

In 2010, you joined an HSBC/Earthwatch collaboration, known as the Sustainability Leadership Program (SLP). What was this experience like for you?

It was my first introduction to Earthwatch, and was the best training opportunity I had in 30 years. The other SLP fellows and I met in Oxford, England. The idea was to support forest conservation efforts and come up with sustainability action plans for HSBC – ideas for creating systems to reduce waste and become a more sustainable company. It was a great program, and it inspired a major career change for me.

I was heading back to the U.S. and ready to change course and pursue something in the environmental field. My HSBC colleagues Matt Robinson and Bill Thomas offered to connect me to Earthwatch. That was the beginning of an important transition in my life. In 2014, I joined Earthwatch as Chief Operating Officer.

In November 2015, you took on a new role at Earthwatch: Chief Executive Officer. How has this change affected you? 

I’ve always felt a lot of responsibility for helping this organization. Becoming CEO has  P1030591
certainly taken that level of responsibility up a notch. For me, it’s about the opportunity to make an impact. I feel that I’ve learned a great deal in my long career, and I believe I have something to offer. And to be able to direct it at something I’m passionate about – it’s a huge opportunity for me. It feels like a natural transition.

You’ve now participated on three expeditions with Earthwatch – Tracking Beavers through German Waters, Tracking Fire and Wolves through the Canadian Rockies, and Exploring Lions and their Prey in Kenya. How did these experiences affect you?

I was so appreciative of the opportunity to connect with people from different parts of the world. Some of my fellow volunteers had been on a number of other Earthwatch expeditions and had a strong passion for the organization. During the “Exploring Lions and their Prey in Kenya” expedition, I took my daughter with me. She also fell in love with Earthwatch and the mission and the people she met in Africa.

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Participating on these expeditions also gave me greater insight into the volunteer experience. I tend to look through their eyes now. When I talk to volunteers, it’s so important for me to be able to speak about my own experiences, to really understand what an Earthwatch expedition is all about.

What is your vision for the future direction of this organization?

The mission is very solid, and we’ve upped the game on the research. The projects focus on the right research areas, they’re in interesting locations, and they’re led by great scientists. All of this is critical to ensure a great volunteer experience. We need to continue to keep all of those things in balance.

More broadly, we’re looking at global change, which is central to everything we do. I’d like us to continue to move from getting that critical evidence around impacts to exploring how we can take action. How can citizen science help us to take action to mitigate or adapt to these changes. P1030647

Climate change is real, it’s critical, it’s urgent. Two hundred countries have agreed on it. We need to study its effects AND we need to focus on the actions required to make a difference, and ultimately, to save the planet. That’s a big piece of where we have to go.

A “Peak” at the Importance of Mountain Ecosystems

By Bernat Claramunt Lopez

Dr. Bernat Claramunt Lopez is Earthwatch’s lead scientist for the expedition “Wildlife in the Changing Andorran Pyrenees.” Bernat works with volunteer teams to assess the impact of climate change on wildlife in the Pyrenees so as to protect this delicate Alpine environment and the species that inhabit it.

Bernat_3“…The mention of mountains conjures images of hiking and skiing, cows and cheese, fresh air and fresh snow.” This quote, taken from a text written by the Mountain Research Initiative, clearly defines a perspective many people have about mountains. The text continues “However, mountains are more than just a background setting for bucolic farms and family hikes”. What does “more than just” mean here? The truth is that mountains provide a notable amount of ecosystem services not only for their inhabitants, but also for citizens living in the lowland regions, far away from them. These services include tangible goods such as wood or water, but also other services that are more difficult to quantify: biodiversity, peacefulness, and cultural heritage, among others.

VIDEO: Bernat highlights some of the volunteer activities and the importance of Earthwatch citizen scientists in helping to protect this critical ecosystem.

One of the most important services provided by mountains is water. It is common (and correct!) to read that mountains are “water towers” that supply disproportionate amounts of runoff to Europe’s rivers in comparison to lowland areas. Similarly, an important proportion of a regions’ hydro-power, a clean and renewable source of energy, comes from mountains. 2015-06-26 06.44.23

Mountains are also centers of biodiversity. For example, European alpine ecosystems above the tree-line cover only 3% of Europe’s area, but host 20% of its native vascular plant species. Mountains are also key habitats for both large carnivores, such as wolves and bears, and large ungulates (hoofed animals).

In an increasingly urbanized and high-paced world, mountains represent crucial retreats where people can recreate, recharge and re-engage with nature and their own sense of self. Similarly, both tourists and people living outside the mountains enjoy high-quality mountain products—such as cheeses, meats, mineral waters, wines—which are emblematic of local cultures and can provide an important basis for mountain economies.

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As with many regions of the world, mountains are experiencing important changes, not only in their physical environment, but also in their social structure. During the last decades, increasing temperatures due to climate change have warmed lakes, rivers and streams; permanent glaciers are melting and disappearing, and runoff and snow cover are dramatically changing. Consequently, water availability, both for humans and for wildlife, is threatened. At the same time, intensification and land abandonment are homogenizing landscapes, increasing the forest area, and reducing the biodiversity of many mountain areas. While agricultural management on economically profitable sites is being intensified, remote areas and those with potentially lower yields are being abandoned.

The Pyrenees are amongst the most important mountain ranges in Europe. Acting as a natural border between France and the Iberian Peninsula, they are part of the Mediterranean basin, and so are exposed to the effects of global change in Mediterranean ecosystems, one of the most threatened globally. Global change models predict an increase of temperatures (especially in the summer and winter) and a light decrease in precipitation—a combination that increases droughts in a region already characterized by drought periods. Moreover, although the amount of precipitation is not likely to change much, the regime will: fewer but more intense rain events will be the rule, not the exception. The effects on agriculture will be noticeable, and we also expect an increased risk of landslides and snow avalanches.

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A series of images captured on camera traps featuring wildlife in the Pyrenees.

How will wildlife respond to these changes? Are mountain societies adapting to them? The Earthwatch expedition “Wildlife in the Changing Andorran Pyrenees” is an ambitious project that tries to answer these questions. The research includes an intense and complete monitoring of most natural compartments at medium to high elevations. We use different methods to answer these questions, including soil decomposition assessment, surveys of most vertebrate groups (small mammal trapping, camera trapping, and nest boxes), invertebrate biodiversity monitoring, tree growth measurement, surveys of flowering plants living in the snowbeds and of meadows exposed to overgrazing by livestock, and drone flights to monitor the status and health of the alpine vegetation.

One of the most important aspects of the project is the collaboration between the researchers and the volunteers. In particular, we partner with local non-profit organizations and governmental departments whose objectives are to protect or manage the environment. We also collaborate with people who live in this environment, including farmers and tour operators, whose livelihoods are directly impacted by climate change. Volunteers help scientists to gather data during the day, and meet the different stakeholders during afternoon and evening meetings. Together, we identify data-based solutions to cope with global change.

The Top 10 Earthwatch Expeditions of 2015 (according to our volunteers)!

To wrap up 2015, we tallied the evaluation scores submitted by each volunteer after his or her expedition—a measurement of training, safety, support, team dynamic, research contribution, overall satisfaction, and many other factors. Knowledgeable, tireless, and inspiring research staff; the experience of interacting with wildlife and ecosystems untouched by tourists; a feeling of safety unparalleled by other organizations; the knowledge that one person can make a difference in the world—these are just a few examples of volunteers’ expedition highlights.

Below are the top 10 expeditions in 2015, according to our volunteers.

  1. Butterflies and Bees in the Indian Himalayas

Butterflies-and-Bees-in-the-Indian-HimalayasFlowering plants and their pollinators are declining in Himalayan orchards, largely due to climate change. Volunteers are working with researchers to determine the best way to manage these changes to support traditional sustainable agriculture.

“A particularly memorable experience was our meeting on the last day with the villagers of Nashala. We were touched by the warm welcome and their obvious appreciation of how Earthwatch was helping them.”  – Judith and Peter Bird

  1. Conserving Koala Country

Conserving-Koala-CountryIn the Great Otway National Park in Victoria, Australia, the effects of climate change, including increasing temperatures, declining rainfall, and increased likelihood of fire are threatening the habitat of the charismatic koala. Volunteers are helping to research and protect this region in an effort to conserve the species.

“We were well-trained and supported in the field. I learned so much about koalas…and about the environment in the Otway’s. I didn’t expect to learn so much about trees. I’ve been doing canopy checks in the parks in NYC ever since I got back.”  – Joanne Edgar

  1. Investigating Threats to Chimps in Uganda

Investigating-Threats-to-Chimps-in-Uganda As food supplies decline in the Budongo Forest, chimps have begun to raid farmers’ crops, leading to human-wildlife conflict. Volunteers are helping to determine the causes of this decline in food and studying ways to ensure the area can support both farmers and primate foragers.

“Earthwatch expeditions give one access to a region that is unlike any tourist experience. We learned so much on this expedition.” – Katherine Babiak

  1. Saving Joshua Tree’s Desert Species

Saving-Joshua-Tree’s-Desert-SpeciesJoshua Tree National Park in Southern California has seen increases in wildfires, severe storms, and persistent droughts due to climate change. Volunteers explore the beauty and diversity of the desert landscape while studying how climate change is shaping this environment.

“I gained an appreciation and understanding of citizen science that will sustain my enthusiasm for such projects for a long time to come. The staff for this expedition were awesome. They were organized and the scheduling was done very well. The staff members were all excellent instructors, and even more excellent mentors. Also the comradery of the team was exceptional. I would never have thought that fifteen people randomly assembled could get along so well. I hope that all of my future Earthwatch experiences are even half as good as this one.” – Nancy Cook

  1. Trailing Penguins in Patagonia

Trailing-Penguins-in-PatagoniaCutting-edge technology could help to unravel a penguin mystery: where and how do these seabirds forage for food? In Patagonia, Argentina, volunteers travel to penguin rookeries on the shores of Golfo San Jorge to monitor and protect a colony of Magellanic penguins.

“The fact that we were able to work in a remote location and work with penguins is an experience most people will never have and that’s amazing. But the science piece on top was fascinating.” – Nancy Pengra

  1. Uncovering the Mysteries of Ancient Colorado

Uncovering-the-Mysteries-of-Ancient-ColoradoIn a region filled with mountainous cliff dwellings and canyons, volunteers are digging into the archaeology of ancient Pueblo communities to uncover clues about the switch from hunting and gathering to agriculture.

“For me it’s all about the experiential learning and understanding the perspectives of the researchers. They all did a great job teaching us and giving us a sense of the value of the research and the depth of their understanding.” – Briant Wolfe

  1. Wildlife in the Changing Andorran Pyrenees

Wildlife-in-the-Changing-Andorran-PyreneesIn the high slopes of the Pyrenees (in a location that has now moved from France to Andorra, a small nation sandwiched between France and Spain), climate change is altering the landscape. Here, volunteers are investigating the amazing biodiversity of these forests and alpine meadows to identify conservation strategies.

“I had a vague understanding that climate change has had a remarkable impact on ecosystems worldwide, but after completing this expedition my level of awareness has increased to the point where I am now implementing changes in my life to contribute to mitigating this growing problem.” – Freddy Ramirez

  1. Excavating the Roman Empire in Britain

Excavating-the-Roman-Empire-in-BritainA Roman military settlement in Northern England was once considered to be the edge of civilization. Volunteers are helping researchers to uncover new artifacts that will help to paint a more detailed picture of life inside this Roman base.

“I loved the chance to get hands-on with artifacts, exposing things no one has seen in thousands of years. It left me wanting to learn more about this period in history, and wanting to bring archaeology more fully into my life at home in some way.” – Laurel Schneider

  1. Shark Conservation in Belize

Shark-Conservation-in-BelizeOne quarter of shark and ray species around the world are at risk of extinction. Volunteers in Belize are tracking and tagging sharks, as well as using underwater video cameras to monitor their behavior, to study how marine reserves function to protect vulnerable shark species.

“I grew up loving sharks, and going on this expedition was like living out a boyhood dream. I will never forget touching my first live shark.” – Aaron Hersum

  1. Unearthing Ancient History in Tuscany

Unearthing-Ancient-History-in-TuscanyThe ancient seaside city of Populonia is one of the most important historical sites in Tuscany. Volunteers and researchers are reconstructing the complex history of this city by digging for clues and rebuilding original objects from discovered fragments.

“I was able to touch the past and comprehend its relevance to the future, both my own and that of the world as a whole. I left this expedition as a better person and with a healthier mindset.” – Madeleine Colburn

Science and Politics at the Recent Paris Climate Negotiations

By Alix Morris and Dr. Bill Moomaw

eiffel-tower-c-yann_caradecAfter two weeks of climate negotiations in Paris, nearly 200 nations came together to sign an historic agreement to stem the effects of climate change. On Friday, December 18th, Dr. Bill Moomaw – a climate expert and Chair of the Science Committee at Earthwatch – will be hosting an “Ask Me Anything” event on Reddit – an online forum where he will answer any and all questions about the implications of the new agreement. Join the conversation between 1:00 and 3:00pm EST.

Landmark Climate Agreement Reached

On the evening of December 12th, after 13 days of intense negotiations, representatives of 195 nations arrived at a landmark climate agreement. According to the agreement, nearly every nation will be responsible for cutting greenhouse gas emissions to limit the devastating effects of climate change. While some have described the plan as a breakthrough achievement, others contend that it does not go far enough.

As part of the climate plan, countries will pursue efforts to contain the rising global temperatures to no more than two degrees Celsius above temperatures in pre-industrial times. But is this enough to prevent some of the most devastating consequences of climate change?

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Scientists expect to observe the greatest effects of climate change in the Arctic. Earthwatch’s Climate Change at the Arctic’s Edge expedition is measuring these changes in Churchill, Manitoba, situated at the convergence of tundra, forest, freshwater, and marine ecosystems.

According to Dr. Bill Moomaw, Earthwatch’s Chair of the Science Committee and Professor Emeritus of International Environmental Policy at Tufts University, these consequences are already occurring. During an interview with WBUR, Boston’s NPR station, Bill said, “I think there’s a lot to be positive about, but we really need to be going further.”

Island nations are in trouble due to rising sea levels, said Bill. Major flooding is occurring in coastal U.S. cities (a four-fold increase in the last 25 years), and the rate of melting in Greenland has tripled during the last 15 years or so. Two degrees is not necessarily a safe level, he said. But the agreement is a critical foundation for ongoing discussion about how to mitigate the effects of the most significant environmental challenge of our time.

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Mountain ecosystems are extremely vulnerable to a changing climate. Earthwatch’s Wildlife in the Changing Andorran Pyrenees seeks to study and protect this delicate alpine environment from the effects of climate change.

The climate agreement is complex, and many are left with unanswered questions or confusion as to its implications for individuals, for nations, and for the planet. That’s why Bill has agreed to host a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” or AMA event on December 18th from 1:00 to 3:00 p.m. EST, where users will have the opportunity to ask Bill any and all questions related to the climate agreement, its relevance, and its implications. Don’t have a Reddit account? No problem. You can easily create one or simply follow the conversation as it’s happening.

Some Climate History from Bill Moomaw:

The science of climate change is complex, and the politics are more so. I have always found the interaction between the two to be fascinating, and remember being shocked as a young scientist that science did not always determine the political outcome of a policy process. I want to share with you the role of science in the outcome of the Paris climate negotiation that just ended on December 13th, 2015.

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In the Peruvian Amazon, evidence of climate change is abundant. Earthwatch’s Amazon Riverboat Exploration is helping to develop conservation strategies to protect this ecosystem and its unique biodiversity.

A bit of history: back in the 1980s, a group of scientists convinced some governments that based on their research, the release of heat trapping gases into the atmosphere would heat the earth to a point where there could be uncontrollable and irreversible warming with devastating consequences for all life, including humans. This science prompted two actions. The first was to create the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to provide scientific input to governments on the science, impacts, vulnerabilities, adaptation, and mitigation of climate change. The second was to negotiate an international treaty, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change that was signed by 154 nations in 1992. The Paris negotiations were the 21st meeting of the parties to the original treaty, and its actions both utilized and ignored science in the final outcome.

I invite you to join me on December 18th in a discussion about how science and policy came together and diverged over issues like the 2oC global temperature goal during the recent Paris talks.

If you have questions about the event, please contact us at communications@earthwatch.org. We hope to see you there!

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From Los Angeles to the Arctic Tundra: a Teacher Transformed

By Steve Lux and Dianna Bell

Steve Lux has been a math and science teacher in the Los Angeles area for 28 years. This past April, he found out he had been selected as an Earthwatch Teach Earth Fellow – a fully funded opportunity to conduct research alongside leading scientists in the field. Just two months later, Steve traveled to Churchill, Manitoba, for the expedition Climate Change at the Arctic’s Edge to study the effects of a changing climate on this important ecosystem. Here is the account of his experience:

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Steve Lux (pictured in the red jacket) joined a group of teacher fellows to study climate change in the sub-Arctic.

Prior to the trip, I imagined the sub-Arctic tundra to be a frozen wasteland, mostly devoid of life. Flying in to Churchill, Manitoba changed my perspective before we even landed. The entire area is free of ice in the summer, and covered by circular ponds of many sizes and colors as far as I could see. I quickly learned the tundra is a vast complex ecosystem, with an abundance of life adapted to survive the harsh conditions – quite the opposite of what I had expected.

One of my biggest concerns is that humans are changing our environment in fundamental ways without any understanding of where these changes are taking our planet. Humans need to study our planet diligently and make informed decisions based on the results of our research. I was surprised to find that the frogs and fish in the tundra ponds freeze during the winter and come back to life when thawed in the spring. I asked Dr. LeeAnn Fishback, lead scientist on the expedition, to explain the biochemistry behind this. Turns out the frogs have a chemical antifreeze that prevents blood from crystallizing at low temperatures. This chemical has been isolated, and is now used in the frozen food industry to prevent freezer burn in foods. This tiny little frog in the subarctic has a chemical that can enhance the longevity of food for human consumption. Who knew?

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The Earthwatch experience confirmed my understanding of the importance of these issues. In Los Angeles, climate change is a “hot” topic, as Southern California is now in the midst of its worst drought ever recorded. The climate itself has become less predictable and more humid over the past several decades (I’ve lived here 51 years). What I will be relating to my students is the importance of scientific research to understand climate change and other conservation issues.

Going to Churchill, Manitoba affected me on a personal level. First of all, the other 10 teachers on the expedition, as well as all the other researchers and staff members at the Churchill Northern Science Center (CNSC), were incredibly kind, caring, intelligent, and fun to be around. Dr. Fishback and her assistants Amanda, Stephanie, Kimberly, and Daniel were all so very patient and knowledgeable. They taught us well, making sure that we all had a positive, fun experience even with the long days of research. We trudged through ponds in the morning, tended to lab work in the afternoons, and attended lectures in the evenings. Seeing how scientists handle research in the field really changed my perspective on the scientific method and how I have been teaching my high school students about science.

Churchill_096 Credit Brigitt Haussamann

The majority of what I learned from this expedition will be incorporated into my science courses. In fact, climate change is going to be the underlying theme to everything I do in all the courses I teach next year. My school is opening a new $20 million science educational facility this fall, and we have purchased a great deal of research grade equipment to be utilized in the new science building for student labs and research projects. I was initially intimidated by all of this new high tech stuff my school purchased, but was gladly surprised to find that almost everything I learned how to use in Churchill were items we have purchased for our students. I can now utilize nearly every piece of equipment my school purchased for our biology and chemistry students. This is very exciting for me!

As far as what we learned about climate change, I will be exposing my students to all of the lecture materials I received from Dr. Fishback and her staff. They gave us everything they had including power points, charts, graphs, images, and even all the data from our research and the methodologies of the research as well. All of this will be incorporated into my future lesson plans.

I returned to Los Angeles rejuvenated and inspired to teach my students about all of the first-hand climate change experience I gained. I cannot thank Earthwatch enough for this life-changing experience.

Check out this video profiling 3 Teach Earth fellows and how they brought their experience back to the classroom.

Earthwatch’s Teach Earth Fellowship Program takes K-12 teachers of all subjects who are passionate about their profession and excited about making a difference in the classroom and puts them directly in the field with scientists and fellow teachers. While on their expedition, teachers learn valuable information and skills that help to promote conservation, environmental sustainability and lifelong learning. When teachers return from the field, they share their experiences with students, colleagues, family, and friends through stories, lessons, and community action.

Can you picture yourself collecting water samples in Manitoba, Canada, or trekking through Arizona studying the effects of climate change on caterpillars and then taking the knowledge you learn back to your classroom and community? If so, fill out our interest form as the first step on your Teach Earth journey!

 

Tracking Dolphins in the Adriatic Sea

By Brianne Fagan, Earthwatch Intern

Morigenos - credit Tilen Genov - dolphins (22)After spending 12 hours on planes, trains, and automobiles, we arrived at the small, red-roofed, coastal city of Piran for our Tracking Dolphins in the Adriatic Sea expedition. We quickly loaded into the research boat for what Tilen, the lead investigator, called an “icebreaker” boat ride. Shortly after leaving the marina, our small team received a call from the bell tower where the land team was based with the location of dolphins. And just like that we were off, straight into the middle of the Gulf of Trieste, in the northern end of the Adriatic Sea.

A view of Tartini Square and Piran’s marina from the bell tower. A stage is present in the square to host the folklore festival occurring later in the week.

A view of Tartini Square and Piran’s marina from the bell tower. A stage is present in the square to host the folklore festival occurring later in the week.

After half an hour, we encountered our first dolphins who warmly welcomed us to Slovenia with a series of acrobatic jumps and splashes. It was the “evening group,” as the researchers call them – a large group of dolphins that hang out in the Gulf in the later hours of the day. Tilen snapped photograph after photograph of them while the rest of us called out when another one appeared. This wasn’t a difficult task since the dolphins had surrounded us. Amazingly, Tilen began introducing us to them, “That’s Moni right there! Hello, Moni!” or, “That’s Kat at 3 o’clock with her calf!” This went on for about two hours until the sun began to set. It was then that we broke contact with the dolphins and headed back to Piran. It was also then that I was able to take a minute to absorb the last few hours. I was in the middle of the Adriatic Sea, on a boat with a group of strangers, tracking dolphins.

Some of the evening group is spotted jumping and playing in the distance.

Some of the evening group is spotted jumping and playing in the distance.

Morigenos and the Slovenian Dolphin Project

Common bottlenose dolphins are a flagship species not only because of their charismatic personalities, but also because of the role they play within their ecosystem. Dolphins are top predators, and as such, serve as an indicator species. This means that a decrease in dolphin health may be indicative of a change to their ecosystem. Morigenos, the Slovenian Marine Mammal Society located in Piran, established a Slovenian Dolphin Project in 2002 in order to monitor the local dolphin population. Before the launch of this project, there was no evidence or information pertaining to dolphins in the region. In fact, marine biologists did not even know that dolphins even existed in the area!

The researchers are able to identify individual dolphins based on the markings and shape of their dorsal fins which, like fingerprints, are distinct from one another. Once they have photographs of the fins, they add them to a photo-ID catalogue and assign them a name. This allows the team to gather information on population size and structure, feeding and social behavior, site fidelity, diet, reproductive rates, survival rates, and various other parameters that can indicate population health.

Dorsal fins have unique shapes, pigmentation, and markings that dolphins acquire throughout their lifetime. ©Morigenos

Dorsal fins have unique shapes, pigmentation, and markings that dolphins acquire throughout their lifetime. ©Morigenos

The Loss of a Dolphin

An assistant, Jan, surveys the water from the bell tower using Big Eyes - an extremely strong pair of binoculars.

An assistant, Jan, surveys the water from the bell tower using Big Eyes – an extremely strong pair of binoculars.

About a week into the expedition we were scanning for dolphins from the bell tower when Ana, a lead investigator, noticed something suspicious and called Tilen over to take a look. It was an unwanted and dreaded sight for the team – a dead dolphin, bloated and floating on top of the water.

In these situations, the team will collect the animal and contact their veterinary partner who will later conduct a necropsy to determine the cause of death, if possible. Sometimes the dolphin can be identified with its dorsal fin, unless the fin is no longer viable or the dolphin is not in the ID catalogue. The dorsal fin of this dolphin, unfortunately, was too deteriorated to allow identification.

Although the dolphin may have died of natural causes, there are many human-induced risks to dolphins that may result in decreased health or even death. Some of the most common risks are related to boat traffic, toxins, and bycatch. Boat traffic is rarely the direct cause of death for a dolphin, as dolphins are agile and can usually avoid boat strikes. The real problem is that some boats transmit sound at the same frequencies that dolphins use to communicate, resulting in unsuccessful hunting or general confusion. Toxins, however, can directly impact health. High levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), for example, have been found in the blubber of the Slovenian dolphin population, resulting in decreased reproductive success and weakened immune systems. Bycatch, although highly detrimental in some areas of the world, is fortunately a rare occurrence in the area.

Morigenos - credit Ana Hace - dolphins (3)

When Ana and I returned from fueling the boat one day, a couple of local fishermen invited us to join them at a local café. As Ana and the fishermen discussed their genuine fears and hopes for the future of Slovenian waters, I sat back and took in the view, appreciated my company, and reflected on the expedition. Although my time in Piran was over, after all of the field work, the unrelenting heat, the countless hours spent surveying for dolphins, I could safely say that I had gathered a sense of the importance and difficulty of such a study, as well as a true appreciation for the life of a dolphin researcher.

The Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation Supports Community Fellows in the Arctic

By Hannah Marshall

DSC00240Earthwatch volunteers have a variety of reasons for joining expeditions – from a desire for meaningful travel to an interest in science to a passion for the planet. One incredibly valuable group of volunteers are community fellows, local people invited by the scientists to participate in the project. This program, which is supported by generous donors, enables members of the community to actively engage with the research and conservation activities. This program not only helps to build understanding and partnerships between the scientists and the community, but exposes fellows to ways they can incorporate their experience in their daily lives and workplaces.

Since 2000, Earthwatch volunteers from around the world have contributed to field research at a project in Churchill, Manitoba. Churchill perches on the seacoast within the Hudson Bay Lowlands, North America’s largest wetland. The area’s most famous inhabitants are its some 57,000 beluga whales and 1,000 polar bears, earning itself the nickname “the polar bear capital of the world.”

This year for the first time, thanks to the support of The Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation, three members of the local community were provided with the funding to participate on the expedition. Prince Albert II of Monaco has a personal interest in the Arctic and has promoted the need to develop The High North in a sustainable way. Prince Albert II’s great great grandfather, Prince Albert I, undertook a number of scientific expeditions to the Arctic, and lent his support, in some cases through gifts or loans of oceanographic instruments, to numerous Arctic and Antarctic explorers.

Earthwatch scientists and volunteers are helping to paint one of the clearest pictures of climate change in the Arctic.

Earthwatch scientists and volunteers are helping to paint one of the clearest pictures of climate change in the Arctic.

Over the next few decades, scientists expect to observe the greatest effects of global warming at high latitudes.

Permafrost underlies 24% of the land surface of the Earth and holds about 50% of the world’s terrestrial carbon (the carbon stored in soil and plants). As temperatures rise and the permafrost thaws, organic compounds begin to decompose, producing carbon dioxide and methane. The release of these greenhouse gases amplifies the effects of global warming. Arctic landscapes will change, and the current plant and animal residents may find themselves unable to adapt.

These shifts in the Arctic will change life for every species there—including humans. That’s why researchers, led by Principal Investigators Dr. LeeAnn Fishback and Dr. Steve Mamet at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre (CNSC) are working hard to understand exactly how these northern Canadian lands and species work together now. The community fellows selected to take part were Barbara Chevre, Sarah Robinson and Matthew Webb. These fellows joined Dr. Fishback, Dr. Mamet, and a number of other Earthwatch volunteers at the CNSC in February 2015.

Volunteers not only support their data collection, they provide meaning and purpose for their work. In Churchill, volunteers have enabled scientists to paint one of the clearest pictures of climate change in the Arctic, so that we can better understand the changes that will eventually take place in our own backyard. The community fellows helped with the research in a number of ways both inside and outside, they took a series of snow samples from the snowpits, the treeline and a tree island.

Earthwatch volunteers outside the Churchill Northern Studies Centre with Dr. Fishback and Dr. Mamet (© Barbara Chevre)

Earthwatch volunteers outside the Churchill Northern Studies Centre with Dr. Fishback and Dr. Mamet (© Barbara Chevre)

Here are a few comments from the community fellows themselves:

I don’t have a scientific background although I have worked in a scientific company before…my contribution to Earthwatch has been my first experience where I actually help science by doing science. I am now convinced everyone can contribute to science.” – Barbara Chevre

“Involvement with this project has shown me that we should maintain funding for projects that collect long term data, and in my work and as a voter, I now look for opportunities to make that happen.” – Sarah Robinson

I was able to establish friendships with many of the team members and it has helped me broaden my connections worldwide. I really enjoyed meeting new people from all different walks of life from across the globe.” – Matthew Webb

The volunteers also praised the support of Dr. Fishback and Dr. Mamet.

“The best thing about this experience is how LeeAnn, Steve and the rest of the staff ensure that everyone gets to experience as much as possible…It’s certainly not every day that you can sample in snow pits during the day, and then tend to the making of an igloo under northern lights after dark.” – Sarah Robinson

Earthwatch volunteers ‘sampling the snow’ in Churchill (© Barbara Chevre)

Earthwatch volunteers ‘sampling the snow’ in Churchill (© Barbara Chevre)

Community fellows are an important part of Earthwatch expeditions. The programme enables local communities to engage directly with the research and it enables scientists to complete their important data collection work. The fellows gain new skills and experiences and they help to provide the other Earthwatch volunteers and scientists with an enriched local experience through their knowledge of the local area.

The funding from The Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation will continue for the next two years, enabling more members of the local community in Churchill to take part in this important project.

Sailing for Seagrass

Kate Aubrey – Earthwatch Australia’s Public Program and Marketing Manager – recently returned from Seagrass Monitoring Expedition in Moreton Bay, Queensland – Sailing for Seagrass. She mapped the seagrass meadows in Moreton Bay with seven volunteers.

There are some things I honestly never thought I would write home about and “seagrass is cool” is certainly one of them. To no surprise to the scientists who dedicate their time researching this underwater world, all seven Earthwatch volunteers joined me in my newfound appreciation of the ocean’s grass.

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Seagrass is a flowering plant that has adapted to living in the ocean. That means, it lives its full life cycle, including flowering and pollination all in the harsh oceanic conditions. Cool right?

If I haven’t convinced you yet, how about the fact that the “Sea Cow” (aka. Dugong), our only herbivorous marine mammal, depends almost entirely on seagrass as its food supply. It grazes on seagrass similar to how the cows graze on grass, except that the dugong removes the whole plant leaving distinct trails along the ocean floor.

Despite not seeing a dugong on the expedition, we did observe these dugong trails and saw more than 40 turtles during the trip.

Arrival

The team met on 16 August at Tangalooma Launches and ferried over to Moreton Island before settling into the well-maintained Villas at Tangalooma Resort. Lead scientist, Dr James Udy, co-scientist Paul Maxwell and Mark Gibbs, our skipper, greeted us at the Villas. James then provided an insightful briefing of the research priorities and activities.

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The first evening we participated in the Dolphin Feeding program managed by Tangalooma Resort. The volunteers had their doubts about the concept, with questions about the legitimacy of feeding wild dolphins. Their concerns were eased when the Resort staff explained the program is a way to educate tourists on the impacts of marine debris and explained the strict guidelines in feeding the dolphins. For example, they are only fed 5% of their daily diet and juvenile dolphins are excluded from this luxury, to ensure they develop their hunting capabilities.

The dolphins come into the beach each night and ‘line up’ into the same rows before being fed and scooting off to hunt – such creatures of habit!

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The Research

The real work began on day two. We were split into two teams Pelagio (the research speed boat) and Velella (the catamaran). Paul and I were the Pelagio crew team and James and Mark held the reigns on Velella.

Each day the volunteers were able to swap between the two boats. Partly to mix up the research activities, allow their wetsuits to dry and enjoy the sundowner speciality on Velella – that the research vessel couldn’t offer.

The activities varied however, the overall goal was consistent. We were mapping the seagrass meadows within Moreton Bay. As turbidity increases and light penetration is reduced, the depth at which seagrass can grow declines. By measuring the depth at which seagrasses grows overtime, we can provide scientists a good indicator of water quality.

There has been a significant decline to seagrass meadows throughout the bay, and research shows that if the amount of sediment is not reduced this decline will continue significantly impacting the sea-life that depends on it.

On Velella, volunteers helped lower an underwater camera down to the oceans floor to observe, what species and density of seagrass was prevalent and the sediment type. Recording sediment type was a highlight with people yelling out scientific terminology such as ‘muddy-sand’ or ‘sandy-mud’ or better yet, sand with muddy sand – I could go on, but I’ll spare you.

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The species and density guides were a useful tool to determining what species was what. Towards the end of the trip everyone’s ‘seagrass eyes’ were sharpened and the guides were not seen again.

The speedy versatile vessel, Pelagio, would take us into shallower depths to snorkel and take seagrass cores, record observations for mapping and set cameras to observe sealife. Coring consisted of a two-person buddy system, one with a 20cm pipe serrated on one side to cut into the seagrass and the other with a sieve for removing sediment from the sample.

The buddy also served their purpose to keep the buoyant snorkeler down as they attempted to push into the ocean floor to cut their sample. The not-so-graceful duck-diving coring manoeuvre took a certain level of skill, perseverance and teamwork.

The go-pro’s were held down with bricks and recorded bait that was placed a foot in front of it and most evening ‘movie nights’ involved everyone huddled together to see what fish and species had a sneak peek. There was a curious cormorant that came down for a snack – twice!

The days were long and certainly cold, however, I went home with a new understanding and appreciation of the role and beauty of our oceans grasslands.

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See more from Channel 7 that came out for a few hours to meet us one-day.

Looking for Lions

By Lloyd Figgins

Lloyd Figgins – Earthwatch’s Global Safety Manager – recently returned from the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, where he joined the Exploring Lions and Their Prey in Kenya expedition to study the complex balance between species in the African savanna.

There are times when I wonder how on earth I managed to get myself into certain situations and this was one of them. We had set off before sunrise in our vehicle, equipped with radio and GPS tracking devices. Our target was a pride of lions, which we knew were in the vicinity. Two of the females had been collared previously, one with a VHF radio transmitter, the other with a GPS unit. In theory it wasn’t going to be a complicated task to locate them. All we needed to do was pick up the signal and then follow the “beeps” until they got stronger and more frequent.

That was the easy bit. Within an hour, we had located the area the pride was in and as we drove through the dense African bush the receivers were going mad. My driver, Phillip, stopped the vehicle, turned to me and simply said, “they are here.” We both looked intently at the bushes surrounding us, yet could only see vegetation. “Are you sure?” I whispered. Phillip just nodded.

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We waited for any movement, but there was none. The receiving equipment was showing a 360° signal, indicating that we were in fact surrounded by lions, but I couldn’t see a single one. Then Phillip announced with typical Kenyan calm, “I can see them.” I looked again, but couldn’t see a thing. Phillip pointed to a bush and gave me specific directions on where to look and then I saw a pair of eyes glaring straight at me. It was a large lioness and she was less than 20 feet (6 metres) away from me. How had I not seen her before?

Now that I had my eyes adjusted to what I was looking for, I saw more and more lions. We were quite literally surrounded by them and some were as little as 5 feet (1.5 metres) from our vehicle. Well, at least the direction finding equipment worked.

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What was remarkable was how they had remained so still and camouflaged as we crashed through the bush, but the silence now was deafening with the engine off as we stared at one another. It was the cubs who broke the standoff. Their natural curiosity and lack of fear drew them towards these intruders and they left their positions to investigate further under the watchful eye of their mothers. Any movements we made, such as raising a camera, were greeted with a warning growl from the adults. It was a subtle, but effective way of letting us know that we were in their territory and there were rules to us being there.

The cubs for their part grew more confident and started playing right below our position. It was an incredible interaction, but we never lost sight of the fact that we ourselves were being monitored on all sides. In total there were 16 lions in the pride (that we could see) and there was a serious scientific reason for us being there.

The location of the research was deep within the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, which is a 4 to 5 hour drive from Nairobi and the reason I was there was to assess the risks and to pave the way for a new Earthwatch expedition exploring lions and their prey in Kenya. I have travelled to Africa many times over the years and Ol Pejeta remains one of my favourite places on the continent. Far from the crowds of Masai Mara, Samburu and Amboseli, Ol Pejeta is a place not only where genuine conservation work takes place, but where you can also see the big five.

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The Earthwatch project is looking at how lions have started to return to the Kenyan savanna after decades of human persecution. But they could become victims of their own success: their return seems linked to declines in rare large herbivores, including many iconic antelope species that tourists in Kenya want to see. So landowners who depend on tourism are considering lethal methods to manage predators once again.

Lions most commonly eat zebras, which have a robust population in the area. And zebras seem to prefer areas where cattle have grazed. By carefully managing the relationships between these species, Earthwatch Scientists led by Dr Jake Goheen and Martin Mulama think it’s possible to influence where the lions seek their meals.

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Being part of this work and seeing it in action was a fascinating insight into the complexities of maintaining a balance between the different species within the conservancy. What was clear was the importance of this work being completed. But Jake and his team can’t do it alone, they need help from the people participating on the Earthwatch expeditions to help carry out the research tasks, such as tracking herbivores, camera trapping leopards and hyenas, as well as tracking the lions, which is how I found myself surrounded by this pride.

What is clear is that with the right scientific approach, predators and their prey can co-exist without the need for human intervention to reduce the number of lions.

No one said it would be simple, but then the most worthwhile things in life rarely are.

Once we had collected all the data we needed from the lions, it was time to move on and leave them in peace to enjoy their rest (lions rest for 20 hours a day). We had invaded their territory in the name of science and they had tolerated us, but as I looked at the young cubs, I couldn’t help but wonder what the future has in store for them. What is certain is that the work being done by the Ol Pejeta Conservancy and Earthwatch is improving the understanding of these remarkable animals and how their habitat can be better managed for future generations of both lions and their prey.

The killing of Cecil the Lion in Zimbabwe has highlighted the trade in commercial hunting and those who claim it is necessary to conserve the species. However, my experience in Kenya has shown that there’s another way and surely it’s time to focus on methods of non-lethal conservation.

Reposted with permission from www.lloydfiggins.com

Beyond the Classroom: Finding Inspiration in Nature’s Paradise

By Heather Wilcox

When Heather Wilcox, Earthwatch’s Director of Annual Giving, arrived on the “Climate Change: Sea to Trees at Acadia National Park” expedition to work with high school students from California, she wasn’t sure what to expect. But two weeks in this idyllic park inspired these students to consider careers in science, and reminded Heather of the importance of protecting our natural world.

Only a few minutes after arriving in Maine’s Acadia National Park, I could already understand why it’s one of the top ten most visited national parks in the U.S. Acadia embodies the best of New England: tranquil spruce-fir forests, pink granite cliffs, polished cobble beaches, mountains, lakes, wetlands, and endless views of the richest blue water I’ve ever seen. That I was lucky enough to facilitate an Earthwatch expedition here for a group of teenage volunteers still felt like a dream. But there I was, anxiously awaiting the arrival of eight high school students from Los Angeles who were about to get their first exposure to field science, Earthwatch, Maine, traveling on their own away from home, and perhaps their future career paths.

Maine’s Acadia National Park

Maine’s Acadia National Park

But Acadia is so much more than an idyllic setting for tourists. The park is located along a major migratory corridor between Canada and South America. The abundance of berries and insects makes it a key pit-stop for birds that need to rest and refuel. Or at least it used to be… Changes in climate, happening at different times and in different ways along this route, have shifted the once synchronous arrival of fruit, insects, and birds, so they are now out of rhythm. Earthwatch Scientist Dr. Abe Miller-Rushing is studying what this means for the survival of these species that rely on each other for pollination and sustenance.

My team, however, would be focusing on these same sorts of shifts happening in the intertidal zone. The Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 99% of the world’s large saltwater bodies, threatening the ecosystems and commercial fisheries that once thrived here. Scientists aren’t sure why this is happening (although they speculate that shifts in the Gulf Stream are at play) and there are still far more questions than answers when it comes to which species will be impacted and how.

John Cigliano demonstrates how to safely handle a crab.

John Cigliano demonstrates how to safely handle a crab.

We arrived at the Schoodic Institute at Acadia National Park in Winter Harbor, Maine on July 5th, ready to conduct research that will help to answer some of these crucial questions. Each of the students was a Student Science Award recipient for Ignite Los Angeles, a fellowship program funded by the Durfee Foundation through a 25-year partnership with Earthwatch. This program is designed to immerse talented students in high-level science as it’s actually practiced, beyond anything they would have the opportunity to experience in the classroom.

Working under the direction of Earthwatch lead scientist Dr. John Cigliano, the students surveyed 14 research sites along the Schoodic Peninsula coast, carefully documenting the species of seaweeds, snails, barnacles and other marine creatures found there. The students also built and installed devices to measure wave energy, record hourly temperature data, and capture barnacle and mussel larvae as they settle out of the water column and attach to the rocks below. This data will paint a picture of the movement of intertidal species over time as they respond – or don’t respond – to warming temperatures, increasing acidification, and rising sea level.

Students record species found within a quadrat.

Students record species found within a quadrat.

Experts predict that within the next 100 years, there will be a massive increase in the amount of hydrogen in the water, which simultaneously decreases the amount of calcium carbonate (a substance that lobsters, clams, mussels, corals, and other marine species draw from the water to build protective shells or perform chemical or biological processes). As these species decline, all of the species that depend on them for food (including us humans) will also be affected. Other research suggests that fish and species without shells are being affected too, with lab results ranging from abnormal growth and development, to delayed reaction time and altered behavior.

It’s grim stuff, for sure, but there is still so much that we can do. This expedition alone is raising awareness about these issues, and will serve as a model for future studies.

It provides hope that ocean acidification and climate change will soon garner the attention that they need. And the fact that generous donors like the Durfee Foundation are committed to exposing youth to the sciences ensures that we are adding more bright minds to the fight.

I realized just how imperative these programs are during a conversation I had with the students about what they were being taught about climate change and the environment. Their unanimous response was a disheartening “nothing.” As a long-time Earthwatch employee, I am proud to say that our hands-on expeditions address gaps like these and truly do have a positive and lasting impact on those who participate.

Reviewing data from periwinkle snail behavioral experiments.

Reviewing data from periwinkle snail behavioral experiments.

When asked about her experience in Acadia, Iris, 16, said “Earthwatch lets us explore science in the field instead of in the classroom. It has had a great impact on us because we were able to see the effects of ocean acidification in our environment. Now that I see how close you can be to nature and how you can affect the world, it really inspires me for college. I definitely want to go to college for biology.”

Her teammate, Alina, 17, shared similar sentiments. “The only real exposure I’ve had to science was in school, in a classroom…I’ve learned that a career in environmental science or conservation would be a really viable career option for me, and Earthwatch really opened my eyes to that.”

As for me, I’ve returned home with a reinvigorated appreciation for the immense beauty of our natural world, and an elevated drive to do even more to protect it for future generations.

I’ve lived in New England my whole life and often took for granted the vast expanses of forest, the breathtaking rocky coasts, the peaceful serenity of being surrounded by wilderness, blinking fireflies on a hot summer evening, or the joy of gazing at the Milky Way splashed across an unpolluted night sky. Seeing these things again for the first time through the eyes of the students reminded me of just how magical our planet is, but also the seriousness of our personal responsibilities to take action to protect it as best we can, whenever we can.

Earthwatch’s Heather Wilcox holds up a new friend in Acadia National Park.

Earthwatch’s Heather Wilcox holds up a new friend in Acadia National Park.

Healthy Trees, Healthy Cities, Healthy Lives

By Alix Morris

City trees offer a variety of benefits, including reducing air pollution and improving our health, studies say. For the last few years, Earthwatch citizen scientists have collected data to estimate the health and benefits of urban forests in Boston and Los Angeles. In this Q&A with two Earthwatch researchers, find out about the value of urban forests, and the importance of citizen science support.

“Urban forests” – the collection of trees planted between and among city structures, decorating concrete sidewalks and backyard spaces, and scattered throughout city parks – offer more than a respite from city life. They improve air quality, mitigate the effects of climate change, produce oxygen, and offer valuable aesthetic appeal.

And, as it turns out, urban forests are good for our health

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Recently, a team of researchers studied more than 500,000 trees in Toronto to measure the effects of urban forests on the health of tens of thousands of Toronto residents. The study found that people who live in neighborhoods with more trees report significantly fewer health conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes, and stroke, and have a higher perceived health. The research adds to a growing body of data indicating that urban forests are good for our psychological health and our physical health, in addition to their positive environmental impact.

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Earthwatch has long recognized the incredible importance of urban forests in resilient cities and currently offers one-day expeditions in Boston and Los Angeles for volunteers interested in helping researchers to identify and measure trees. Urban trees face a number of threats, including lack of access to water, pollution, diseases, shading by buildings, and removal by city officials. By studying these threats and measuring the growth and abundance of trees, Earthwatch researchers and volunteers can provide local tree managers with the tools they need to maintain healthy urban forests.

An Earthwatch volunteer measures the circumference of a tree in Boston to assess its health.

An Earthwatch volunteer measures the circumference of a tree in Boston to assess its health.

I had a chance to speak to two Earthwatch researchers – Dr. Darrel Jenerette of the University of California, Riverside and Dr. Vanessa Boukili of Earthwatch – about the importance of understanding our urban forests, and the value of citizen scientists. Here’s what they had to say:

What is the message you’d like to share with people who want to get involved with this research?

Darrel: I think it’s important to know that more than half of the human population lives in cities today, and that’s going to increase to the point where we’re expecting another two billion urban residents by the year 2030. Cities are places where we need to understand the resilience challenges to make them healthier and more habitable. We need to make our cities more resilient to future climate change.

It’s also about education. It’s really fun doing science, and I want to share that with others. I just had a middle school teacher contact me who had participated in our research and had gotten his class to participate. He was writing a blog about the research and was using it as a vehicle for science education. That was a huge success and there are many examples like this.

How has citizen science supported the urban forest project?

Vanessa: Almost all of the tree measurements in our study have been conducted by citizen scientists. From 2012-2014, citizen scientist volunteers measured over 6,000 trees. Our citizen scientist brigade allows us to collect enough data to answer larger questions than we would be able to answer without them.

“Our research would not be possible without citizen scientists.” — Vanessa Boukili

Darrel: Citizen scientists allow us to collect a magnitude of samples that would be impossible for us otherwise, which is really exciting. They also help us to close the loop between connecting research results to society. We train our citizen scientists to be trainers – to go out and tell people what’s going on.

What are the challenges to your research – where do you need support from volunteers?

Vanessa: Our study is longitudinal, where we are looking at the same set of trees over time. The measurements we take in the field are relatively straightforward to make; we verify tree species identity, measure tree size (diameter), and assess the condition of the tree.

One of the primary challenges we face is collecting data from large numbers of trees. Because there are a lot of different factors that influence tree survival and growth, we need data from many thous