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

DSC_3505

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