The Top 10 Earthwatch Expeditions of 2017 (according to our volunteers)!

What were the best expeditions of 2017 according to our volunteers? To find out, we tallied evaluation scores submitted by volunteers – scores that factor in safety, support, team dynamic, research contribution, training, overall satisfaction, and more. Some of the most common comments we received have to do with the inspiring and hardworking staff, the discovery of science, and the feeling of having an impact as major highlights.

1. Saving Joshua Tree’s Desert Species

Joshua tree (Courtesy Joanne Owen)Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California has seen increases in wildfires, severe storms, and persistent droughts due to climate change. Volunteers help safely trap and release reptiles, small mammals, and arthropods, and conduct vegetation surveys to better understand the movement of species within this desert ecosystem and help to develop a critical baseline understanding of how climate change is shaping this environment.

“I was impressed not only with the knowledge and expertise of the scientists, but also with their compassion and concern. This was shown by their compassion for and consideration of the research subjects, plants and animals. Traps were set and attended so as not to hurt or injure. Even plants and bugs were not unnecessarily tromped on. Each of the participants was treated with consideration and care. Even discussion of those who might not value the research or misbehaving park visitors were respected. I heard one of the scientists say, ‘It’s their park too. We have to teach them how to experience it if they don’t know how.'” – Alison Bishop

2. Uncovering the Mysteries of Colorado’s Pueblo Communities

Uncovering the Mysteries of Colorado's Pueblo Communities project site. (Courtesy Warren Stortroen)In southwest Colorado, Earthwatch volunteers are uncovering some of the least understood questions around great houses of ancestral Pueblo communities. Archaeologists at Crow Canyon Research Center are discovering the nature of Chaco influence and impact of drought on building practices during the Pueblo II period in a region filled with mountainous cliff dwellings and canyons.

“All of the staff and researchers at Crow Canyon are great to work with. They are always attentive to the needs of volunteers, and show that they really care about our welfare and our involvement in the research.” – Warren Stortroen

3. Amazon Riverboat Exploration

Volunteers cruising down the Samiria River in the Amazon. (Courtesy Pablo Puertas)A kaleidoscope of wildlife lives deep in the heart of Peru’s flooded Amazon region, including rare pink river dolphins, macaws, and small alligator-like caimans. Volunteers survey these species and more while operating out of a historic boat – collecting data that directly shape local conservation and management policies.

“I am a bench experimental biologist. The expedition introduced me to an entirely different kind of science. Learning about community-based conservation, meeting the young biologists who were our teachers and the local people who were our boatmen, and experiencing environments and landscapes entirely new to me – it was enormously enjoyable.” – Barbara Baltelle

4. Wildlife in the Changing Andorran Pyrenees

The Andorran Pyrenees (Courtesy Mathew Yee)In the high slopes of the Andorran Pyrenees, as in other mountain ecosystems, climate change is altering the landscape. Volunteers are helping researchers to investigate the amazing biodiversity of these forests and alpine meadows so they can identify mitigation strategies. During their nine days on the project, they learn to identify birds, assess mammal diversity with camera traps, study alpine flowers, and track bats under the stars.

“The scientists – Bernat, Irene and Jana – could not have provided a better experience. Their enthusiasm and eagerness to share information engaged the team and allowed us to feel a real part of this project. I learned a great deal about employing scientific method to obtain data that would be of value. As a new retiree, it felt great to realize continued physical and mental abilities that could be of use. I was always encouraged to challenge myself, but never expected to do more than what I was comfortable with.” – Henry Bowen

5. Wildlife of the Mongolian Steppe

Siberian ibex running across the Mongolian Steppe.A wilderness landscape with a rich diversity of wildlife that few people ever experience – that’s the beauty of Mongolia. Here, volunteers are assessing the health and behavior of Argali sheep, Lesser Kestrels, Cinereous Vultures, Siberian ibex, and other species – many of which are threatened by poaching, illegal mining, and overgrazing.

“I learned a lot about the local community and the project. The community is highly involved, therefore you can see the impact. I learned from the herdsmen that during the past 30 years, climate change has had a direct impact on the local community. This project also brought out the best in me as I learned to work with my fellow teammates.” – Bernard Johnpulle

6. Climate Change at the Arctic’s Edge

Volunteers conducting field research during the expedition Climate Change at the Arctic's Edge. (Courtesy Erica Marlaine)Churchill, Manitoba, known as the “polar bear capital of the world,” is located at the Arctic treeline and is extremely sensitive to small environmental changes that have a huge impact on ecosystems. Warming temperatures have led to shrinking areas of polar sea ice, freshwater wetlands that are drying up, and less extensive winter snowpack that melts earlier. Volunteers are helping researchers to gather evidence of climate change in this extraordinary region to better understand what the future may have in store for the environment.

“The expedition made me realize that this is the type of work I would possibly want to do in the future. Before this, I didn’t know what being a field scientist really entailed. But being a part of this team made me appreciate the work of field (and all) scientists and truly understand the importance of work like this.” – Olivia Ellman

7. Protecting Whooping Cranes and Coastal Habitats in Texas

Two adult Whooping Cranes with a subadult in Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. (Courtesy Dave Rein)Hunting pressure and landscape changes have pushed the endangered Whooping Crane to the brink of extinction. Thanks to conservation efforts, the only wild migratory population, which winters in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, has grown from just 15 birds to more than 300. Volunteers are helping scientists along the Gulf Coast of Texas, a region that has seen some of the most devastating impacts of Hurricane Harvey, to survey Whooping Crane habitat and foraging patterns to inform protection measures for their winter home.

“This program provides an excellent opportunity for the average citizen to become educated about our planet at a level beyond the textbook. I learned more about the earth’s beautiful resources and the importance of protecting this endangered species and its habitat. I gained firsthand knowledge of the work by the few that care so much to dedicate their lives to accomplish this.” – Rick Bryant

8. Following Forest Owls in the Western U.S.

Volunteers measure owls.Deep within the aspen groves in northern Utah and the riparian canyon and coniferous forests in southeastern Arizona, a suite of small forest owl species seek out tree cavities for their nests. But climate change threatens to disrupt the routine of these species. Researchers, assisted by Earthwatch volunteers, are conducting nesting surveys, measuring, photographing, and banding several small cavity-nesting owl species, including Flammulated, Elf, and Whiskered Screech Owls.

“I have been on 17 Earthwatch expeditions and this was one of the best. Dave and Markus (the scientists) were always patient, enthusiastic and generous. They understood that a key ingredient of a successful expedition is making certain that the volunteers feel useful. We all worked hard and reveled in that.” – Alice Jacklet

9. Climate Change: Sea to Trees at Acadia National Park

Acadia National Park (Courtesy Thomas Tepstad Berge)Maine’s Acadia National Park is a popular pit-stop for migratory birds that need to rest and refuel, thanks to its abundance of berries and insects. But changes in climate have shifted the timing of this rendezvous, which may affect the survival of species that rely on each other for pollination and sustenance. Volunteers are assisting scientists in studying the effects of climate change on land, in freshwater lakes and streams, and along the rocky seashore of this iconic New England landscape.

“Real world data collection – fantastic! The Schoodic area is breathtakingly beautiful. The variety of tasks and environments (forest and intertidal) made for an interesting adventure. Also, I now know what phenology is! This project gave me an appreciation for the difficulty of getting good data.” – Michael Flumian

10. Conserving Marine Life along Catalina’s Coast

Volunteers kayaking off the coast of Catalina Island. (Courtesy Brad Stevenson)On the picturesque island of Catalina, located off the coast of southern California, scientists and Earthwatch volunteers are assessing the impact of Marine Protected Areas on the abundance of species such as California sea lions, gray whales, and common dolphins. They are also monitoring threats from climate change and human activities and helping to conserve this unique coastal habitat.

“The expedition opened my eyes to the opportunities within science and the accessibility for all. Also, that science is something which should be enjoyed as well as questioned.” – Emily Mawbey


To learn more about any of these projects, visit the Earthwatch website, email us at info@earthwatch.org, or call us at 1-800-776-0188.

One… Two… Three trips to the Andorran Pyrenees.

Andorran Pyrenees Mountains. (Courtesy Mathew Yee)
By Nita Losoponkul, Earthwatch Volunteer

As an Earthwatch volunteer, Nita Losoponkul has traveled to Andorra three times to participate on the expedition Wildlife in the Changing Pyrenees. She shares what makes this place so special and why she has chosen to return each time.


“Again? Didn’t you go there last year?” Well yes. And I LOVED every minute of it!

While most people can’t find Andorra on the map, it is now one of my favorite places and I hope that I’ll be fortunate enough to be able to visit again in the future. I’ve been lucky enough to go on five Earthwatch expeditions and chose to do three of the five on the Wildlife in the Changing Pyrenees, where scientists are studying how climate change is impacting this Alpine environment.

(Courtesy Mathew Yee)

When asked about why I’m a three-timer, it’s hard to choose just one reason, but here’s my best attempt to explain:

1. My inner science geek is set free. I’ve always loved science. As a child, I begged my parents to go to “nerd camp,” to spend summers digging for fossils and to be excused from curfew to stay out late to view constellations. But as I got older, it became harder to stick with what I loved, and I eventually walked away from science and into business school.

Earthwatch is my avenue to stay in touch with that inner science geek that I had pushed aside as I began adulting.

The Wildlife in the Changing Pyrenees project, in particular, has been amazing at satisfying my nerdiness as the team has continued to innovate each year. Even as a third-timer, there were new sub-projects underway that I needed to learn about. There are 12 different study sites and numerous activities at each site that volunteers self-select to do involving small mammals, bird banding, tree measurements, nest boxes, soil decomposition, insects, and permafrost flower and plant species. It would take many more trips for me to do every sub-project at every site. And then there are new ones added each year! (We started setting up a new sub-project for next year on this last trip, but I’ll leave it to the research team to spill the beans on this.)

2. I’m inspired by the passion and dedication of the team to do more. I’ve never seen a team that works as hard as the research staff on this project. While we are enjoying our desserts and wine (see #4, below) after dinner, they are back out in the field, in the dark, doing a nighttime check of the small mammal traps. On our “day off,” they are hauling supplies up the mountain so there was less for us volunteers to carry. On the hikes, they have the heaviest packs, loaded down with stacks of wood, hammers, mallets, and anything else you could possibly think of.

They are out with us every step of the way, and then some more after we’ve called it a day.

The crew members are also some of the smartest and kindest people I’ve ever met. I’m language challenged, and I consider it a personal victory that I say basic things like wine, cheese and bathroom in a few different languages. But to be able to converse, and know less commonly used words like dendrometer and know that a group of crows is called a murder in Catalan, Spanish, French, Latin (the scientific names of things) and English is awe-inspiring (I didn’t really know these myself until I did this project, and English is my native tongue).

3. “Stretch assignments” that “push the limits” build character. This is not an easy project from a physical standpoint. Except for those who have natural abilities to run both on and off trails with ease (i.e. “mountain goats”), it’s definitely an expedition that requires some training in advance. But it’s pushed me to work harder and train harder and believe that if I try, I can conquer the hills! And in case I’m wrong, I have a supportive team to catch me when I fall! That being said, the team also believes in “no volunteer left behind.” They have done an amazing job on each of my three expeditions with finding skill and strength-appropriate tasks for volunteers, no matter where they are at physically.

If you are thinking of doing this project (which I highly recommend), I do encourage you to train for it. The views are spectacular (see evidence of this in the photos on this blog post and on the project Facebook page) and worth the challenging hikes to get there. (Well, except site 11, which I’ll let other volunteers and the team share more about some other time).

The team that survived the climb to site 11. (Courtesy Daniel Almeida)

The team that survived the climb to site 11. (Courtesy Daniel Almeida)

4. It’s still my vacation and I come home rejuvenated. I’m at the age where if given the option, I’m going to select an actual bed, a flushing toilet, and a hot shower over “roughing it” like I did in my younger years with bucket rinses, pit toilets, and sleeping bags. Hotel Bringue definitely meets that requirement, and then some. (There is also wifi and cable TV.) Many of the volunteers (myself included) have had a number of dietary restrictions and the hotel staff does a fabulous job ensuring there is something for everyone to eat. After a day booking it up the mountain and sometimes, on rainy days, sloshing in the mud, it’s amazing to come back to a hot shower, a glass (or three) of wine at dinner, and a three-course meal. (There’s also a cash bar for those who want something other than wine.)

Hotel Bringue (Courtesy Zachary Zimmerman)

Hotel Bringue (Courtesy Zachary Zimmerman)

And that’s my long-winded attempt to explain my three-peat on this project, so I’ll stop here. But please feel free to reach out to Earthwatch to connect us. I’m happy to answer questions about the trip and to help in any way that I can. And I hope to see you in Andorra in the future! (You can bet I’ll be back for more.)


To learn more about this project, visit the Earthwatch website: Wildlife in the Changing Andorran Pyrenees.

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!