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

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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.

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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.

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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.