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

By Dr. Steve Mamet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Week Spent Restoring Sierra Nevada’s Meadows

Anna Woodroof in the meadows of Sierra Nevada.

Anna Woodroof

By Anna Woodroof, Earthwatch Program Delivery Assistant

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Student Ignites Path To Career In Science Through Fellowship Program

By Kiara Reed, 2014 Ignite Fellow

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


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

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

Common periwinkles on barnacles in Acadia National Park.

Common periwinkles on barnacles in Acadia National Park.

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

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

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

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


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

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

By Connor Spach, Earthwatch Communications Intern

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Connor Spach, Earthwatch Communications Intern

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

Dr. Cristina Eisenberg. (Courtesy Trevor Angel)

Dr. Cristina Eisenberg. (Courtesy Trevor Angel)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the Move in Malawi: A Conservation Success Story

By Alix Morris

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

 

Zebra loaded up

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


A Park in Crisis

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

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

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


Earthwatch on the Scene

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

Leslie - credit Dr. Allison Leslie (16)

Earthwatch volunteers record wildlife observations in Majete.


A Conservation Success Story

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

By Jan Boal

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


Author Jan Boal during an Earthwatch expedition.

Author Jan Boal during an Earthwatch expedition.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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