Category Archives: Research

Amusing Monday: A comedy connection to climate change info

Climate scientist Josh Willis, who graduated from the Second City Comedy School, does a pretty good impersonation of Elvis Presley, as he tries to help people understand climate change.

“It’s a tough thing to communicate, and I think that we need to use all the tools that we can in order to really reach people and help them understand what’s happening to the planet,” Willis said in an interview on KNBC’s “Life Connected” show in Los Angeles, which aired last week.

The first video on this page features a rock ‘n’ roll song that answers the question, “What’s climate … What?”

“You take a bunch of weather and you average it together and you’re doing the Climate Rock!”

Professionally, Willis, who works for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is part of a team that travels to Greenland to observe how changing temperatures are melting away the glaciers and raising sea levels. They call the project OMG, for Oceans Melting Greenland.

Willis, who holds a doctorate in oceanography from the University of California, San Diego, makes his living as a scientist, but he has long enjoyed connecting with people in a humorous way.

“Being a scientist, we’re trying to discover something about the world, and I think being a comedian, you’re trying to discover something about people that makes them laugh,” he said in the KNBC piece by Belen De Leon and Tommy Bravo.

Willis spends a portion of his free time performing in comedy clubs. He developed the Elvis character and produced a video on YouTube.

“Being a kind of a middle-age, doughy, white guy with big hair and sideburns, Elvis seemed like the perfect guy,” Willis said.

He has found that people might ask Elvis basic questions about climate change that they might not ask a stuffy scientist, and those personal interactions have improved his ability to communicate science in more creative ways, according to an article last week by Zoe Sayler of Grist magazine.

“Climate scientists have become a political weapon, right? We’re seen as this kind of imaginary force that’s either being manipulated or telling you the truth, depending on your political leanings,” Willis was quoted as saying. “We need to be humanized a little bit, because we’ve lost that.”

In the Grist article, Sayler gets Willis to tell the story about a research paper he co-wrote that suggested a brief shift toward global cooling — a finding that, if true, would have reverberated through the world of climate science. Just before presenting the paper at a climate conference, Willis found an error in the data.

The mistake was like a comedy routine with no laughter, and Willis decided the best thing to do was rewrite the paper, provide the correct findings and explain what went wrong.

“We all fail, and we all make mistakes,” Willis said in the Grist article. “When you can own up to them, and try to move on, then people usually forgive you. I think in comedy, the same thing is true. When you bomb, the best thing you can do is own up to it and make fun of yourself.”

The other two videos are bits by Willis, featuring one character called Dick Dangerfield and another called Guy Scientist.

Can volunteer trappers halt the green crab invasion in Puget Sound?

The war against the invasive European green crab continues in Puget Sound, as this year’s Legislature offers financial support, while the Puget Sound Crab Team responds to crabs being caught for the first time in Samish Bay in North Puget Sound and at Kala Point near Port Townsend.

In other parts of the country where green crabs have become established, the invaders have destroyed native shoreline habitat, diminished native species and cost shellfish growers millions of dollars in damages. See Environmental Protection Agency report (PDF 1.3 mb).

European green crab trapping sites in Puget Sound.
Map: Washington Sea Grant

In Puget Sound, it’s hard to know whether the crabs are being trapped and removed rapidly enough to defeat the invasion, but so far humans seem to be holding their own, according to Emily Grason, who manages the Crab Team volunteer trapping effort for Washington Sea Grant.

“The numbers are still in line with what we saw the past two years,” Emily told me. “Since the numbers have not exploded, to me that is quite a victory. In other parts of the world, they have been known to increase exponentially.”

The largely volunteer Crab Team program is focused on placing baited traps at 56 sites in Puget Sound, as shown in the first map on this page. About 220 trained volunteers are involved in that work, with various federal, state and tribal agencies adding about 40 additional people.

Last year, 69 78 crabs were caught in the traps. All but eight of those were on or near Dungeness Spit, where officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have increased their trapping in an effort to catch every crab willing to crawl into a trap. The agency manages the Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge.

In Samish Bay, east of the San Juan Islands in North Puget Sound, three green crabs — including a female bearing eggs — were captured in January while shellfish growers were tending to shellfish beds in the bay. This was the first time that green crabs have been caught in the winter, when they usually move offshore, according to Emily. For that reason, the overall trapping program begins in April and ends in September. But far out on the mudflats, during a low tide, the crabs might be found by those working the shellfish beds. See Emily’s Crab Team blog post from Jan. 23.

Staffers at Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve added a fifth trapping site in an extremely muddy area of Samish Bay, an area that would be tough for volunteers to monitor, Emily said.

A new Port Gamble site was added in an effort to detect any crabs that may have arrived during their larval stage and begun to grow. Port Gamble on the Kitsap Peninsula is considered to be in the proximity of Kala Point near Port Townsend, where a single green crab was found in September, just before the end of the trapping season. Further extensive trapping located another green crab in nearby Scow Bay between Indian and Marrowstone islands. See Emily’s Crab Team blog post from Sept. 25.

The monitoring at Point Julia in Port Gamble Bay will be managed by the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe, which may propose additional sites in the area.

Based on research since the Crab Team was formed in 2015, more crabs are caught in May than any other month, Emily told me, so everyone is waiting to see what shows up this month. As the waters warm and the crabs go out in search of food, they may become more vulnerable to trapping. So far this spring, 16 green crabs have been trapped along Dungeness Spit with one from nearby Sequim Bay.

Another big trapping month comes in August, before the crabs move offshore, she said.

The trapping effort is geared to catching as many crabs as possible at a young age, because a large population of breeding adults in any location could threaten to spread the infestation throughout Puget Sound. Having Crab Team volunteers putting out their traps in strategic locations increases the probability that green crabs will be found before they get established. If needed, larger eradication or control efforts can be launched with the help of other agencies.

As part of the effort, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife added a staffer last year to do spot checking in vulnerable areas not regularly trapped. That increases the chances of detecting an invasion.

For the first time this year, the Legislature funded the Crab Team’s operating budget, which allows Emily and other Crab Team leaders to focus on finding crabs, rather than spending their time searching for funding to keep the program going.

The hope, of course, is that fewer crabs will be caught this year, as an indication that the population is being held in check. It would be nice to think that all the major infestations have been found.

“We hope that this is going to be an easier year,” Emily said, “but we don’t get to determine that. We have to be responsive to whatever happens.”

Officials working along the Washington Coast, led by the Makah Tribe, have their hands full with an invasion that may have started as early as 2014 and has resulted in more than 1,000 green crabs being caught. Check out the story on the website of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.

The interactive map below allows for selection of trapping sites, locations where crabs have been found and areas with suitable habitat for invaders. For those who would like to get involved in the Crab Team’s efforts, check out Sea Grant’s website and the “Get Involved” page.

This blog post was revised from an earlier version to correct changes in the total number of green crabs found last year and to clarify the overall effort.

Laura Blackmore takes over as director of Puget Sound Partnership

Laura Blackmore, deputy director of Puget Sound Partnership, will slide into the agency’s executive director position when she comes into work next week.

Laura Blackmore

Laura has built a reputation as a facilitator, helping to meld diverse ideas into cohesive policies. That experience should serve her well in the director’s post, where she will take on the primary role of shaping the direction of the Partnership for the coming years.

“Puget Sound is in trouble, and we know what we need to do to fix it,” Laura told me. “It took us 150 years to get into this mess, and it will take us awhile to get out. What we need is the political will to keep going.”

Puget Sound Partnership was created by the Legislature in 2007 to oversee recovery efforts throughout Puget Sound.

In appointing Laura to the post, Gov. Jay Inslee said he is confident that she will build on the success of her predecessor, Sheida Sahandy, who helped transform the agency with innovations that honed the restoration efforts. Sheida served as executive director for five years.

“Laura’s extensive experience with the Puget Sound Partnership, her longtime work with tribal governments, and her work on salmon recovery and water quality will position her well to lead the agency,” the governor said in a news release.

Laura, who joined the Partnership in 2015, has been at the center of salmon-recovery initiatives developed by the Puget Sound Salmon Recovery Council. She’s also been a key player in the development of the Action Agenda — the overall blueprint for ecosystem recovery — and she helped oversee development of the “implementation strategies” that define actions taken by a multitude of agencies and groups.

Laura told me that much progress has been made in improving habitat for fish and wildlife, as reflected in the 2017 “State of the Sound” report. People will see more progress when the next report comes out later this year, she added. Shellfish beds have been reopened to harvest; estuaries have been restored for salmon; and flood plains have been reconnected to streams to reduce flooding and improve the ecosystem. Still, chinook salmon and the orcas that depend on them have been struggling — so restoration efforts must be intensified.

“We have a lot of work in front of us,” she said, “but this was one of the best legislative sessions for the environment that we’ve had in years.”

Much of the legislation, as well as appropriations, came from recommendations by the governor’s Southern Resident Orca Task Force. Listed in the budget, for example, are:

  • $85 million to the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program (WWRP), which provides local grants to purchase and protect critical wildlife habitat, streamside habitats, agricultural lands and recreation facilities.
  • $50 million for the Floodplains by Design program, which reduces flooding, restores salmon habitat, improves water quality and enhances outdoor recreation by moving houses and roads back from the rivers and allowing the waters to take a more natural course.
  • $49.5 million for Puget Sound Acquisition and Restoration, which will fund $30 million in watershed-restoration projects plus provide money for three large-scale projects: Middle Fork Nooksack Fish Passage Project, Dungeness River Floodplain Restoration, and Riverbend Floodplain Restoration on the Cedar River.
  • $44 million for the Department of Ecology to provide grants to local governments for projects that reduce stormwater pollution.
  • $25 million in state funds to match up to $50 million in federal funds for sustainable and measurable habitat projects that benefit salmon and other fish species.
  • $7.8 million to launch three projects in partnership with the Army Corps of Engineers known as the Puget Sound Nearshore Ecosystem Restoration Project (PSNERP). They are located at the Duckabush Estuary in Hood Canal, plus the North Fork Skagit River Delta and Nooksack River Delta, both in North Puget Sound.

The Legislature passed laws to to reduce the risk of an oil spill on Puget Sound, to improve compliance with shoreline-protection rules and to decrease the disturbance to killer whales caused by boat traffic.

One issue that Laura will face this year is what to do about the Year 2020 ecosystem indicator “targets” that were established in the early years of the Puget Sound Partnership, which was created by the Legislature in 2007. Many of the targets, such as measures of salmon recovery, have not been reached, as proposed in the legislation that created the Partnership.

As past directors have said, the year 2020 was an initial goal with aspirational targets, but the effort to protect and restore Puget Sound must continue.

“Even if you get to a place where Puget Sound is healthy, you will want to maintain that into the future,” Laura said, just as a healthy human body must be maintained for long-term survival.

New targets need to be developed, she said, and that effort will begin next month during the regular meeting of the Leadership Council, which oversees the work of the Puget Sound Partnership.

Laura, 45, came to the Partnership from Cascadia Consulting Group, where she was in charge of water and natural resources issues, such as helping to facilitate the Puget Sound Salmon Recovery Council and Chinook Monitoring and Adaptive Management Project.

Before becoming deputy director at the Partnership, she served as director of Partner Engagement and was involved in other interactive roles. Last year, she served on the governor’s Southern Resident Orca Task Force.

Friday was the last day at the Partnership for Sheida Sahandy, who said this about Laura in a news release:

“I am proud to leave the agency in the best shape it’s ever been, strong and focused. Laura brings a great deal of experience, knowledge and commitment to Puget Sound recovery to this role, and I have full faith that she will continue to lead the Partnership in the right direction.”

Jay Manning, chairman of the Leadership Council, said Laura is well organized and works great with all sorts of people.

“She identifies the task at hand and makes sure it gets done,” he said. “I am super-exited to work with her.”

Laura holds a bachelor’s degree in geology from Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., and a master’s degree in environmental management from Duke University in Durham, N.C.

‘Survive the Sound’ salmon game now open to all with no charge

“Survive the Sound,” an online game that involves tracking salmon migrations in Puget Sound, has thrown open its doors for everyone, whether you donate money or not.

The idea of buying a salmon character to participate in the game has been abandoned after two years, and now the fish are free for the choosing. Long Live the Kings, which sponsors the game, still welcomes donations, of course, but money is not a prerequisite.

“We wanted to make sure that everyone has an opportunity to learn more about salmon and steelhead and support the movement to recover them,” Lucas Hall, project manager for LLTK, told me in an email. “So, we’ve simplified the sign-up process and eliminated any fees associated with participation.”

Eliminating the fees also makes it easy to form or join a team, which can consist of any number of people. The winner is the team with the greatest percentage of fish surviving to the end of the five-day migration. So far, more than 400 teams have been created among more than 2,000 players signed up for the game.

If you register with “Survive the Sound,” you will receive daily emails tracking your fish character, based on actual fish that were tracked during past research projects. Most fish characters in the game will perish somewhere along the way, as salmon do in real life, but some will make it all the way through Puget Sound to the ocean.

The deadline for joining the game is May 5. Go to “Survive the Sound” for details or to sign up. The game begins the following day.

Many teachers are involving their students in the game, which can be a springboard for describing the life cycle of salmon and the perils they face from egg to adult spawner. Last year, more than 30,000 students participated through their classroom, and many classroom teams continue. See “Getting started in the classroom” for classroom materials, including a live webinar involving salmon scientists.

If you have questions about the project, you can check with Lucas Hall, lhall@lltk.org.

Female orca in declining health shows amazing signs of recovery

The killer whale J-17, known as Princess Angeline, seems to have made a remarkable recovery since December, when the 42-year-old female was diagnosed with “peanut head” — an indicator of malnutrition that almost always leads to death.

Princess Angeline, J-17, in Admiralty Inlet Sunday
Photo: Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research
Federal permits: NMFS 21238 / DFO SARA 388

Now Princess Angeline looks much better and shows few signs of that dire condition, said Ken Balcomb, director of the Center for Whale Research who got a good look at her Sunday when J pod came into Puget Sound.

“Since New Year’s Eve, J-17 has fared much better than we expected,” Ken told me. “They must have found some winter food up in Georgia Strait.”

At one point, Ken had said it would be a “miracle” if she were ever seen again.

Her current condition does not mean that she is no longer at risk. In March, her terribly bad breath suggested an underlying medical problem, perhaps beyond the lack of food.

J pod, one of the three southern resident killer whale pods, typically spends most of the winter in the northern part of the Salish Sea in British Columbia. The whales sometimes cross the Canadian border to check out food availability in Puget Sound.

The orcas prefer to eat chinook salmon, although they occasionally eat other fish. Younger chinook, known as blackmouth, can be found in inland waters during the winter, but they are smaller and provide less energy for the amount of effort it takes to catch them.

Ken observed that J pod seemed to be catching blackmouth in Admiralty Inlet when he watched them on Sunday. Read his full report at the Center for Whale Research website.

Anglers were reportedly catching fair numbers of blackmouth in the Kingston-Edmonds region, where the orcas were seen Sunday, according to Puget Sound creel reports. Foraging by the orcas was noticed by many whale observers, according to the latest whale-sightings report from Orca Network.

“Sunday turned out to be more wonderful than we could have hoped when Js/L87 made their way north and foraged all day in glassy calm seas in the great wide open between Edmonds, South Whidbey, and the Kitsap Peninsula,” wrote Alisa Lemire Brooks, who compiled an extensive report of minute-by-minute sightings. “Perhaps there wasn’t enough salmon to entice a longer stay, since they showed up off the west side of San Juan Island the following morning.”

If Princess Angeline has overcome her malnourished condition, it would be truly welcome news. The critically endangered southern residents, with 75 animals, are close to the lowest population observed since many were captured for the aquarium trade during the 1960s and ‘70s. “Peanut head” describes the shape of an orca’s head when a severe loss of blubber creates an indention behind the blowhole.

Princess Angeline, named after the daughter of Chief Seattle, is the mother of Tahlequah, or J-35, a 21-year-old orca mom who became heartbreakingly famous for carrying her dead calf on her head for 17 days. Tahlequah herself has remained relatively healthy.

Another whale showing peanut head last year was K-25, a 28-year-old male named Scoter. He lost his mother, K13 or Skagit, in 2017. Males who lose their mothers often struggle to survive. K pod has not been observed lately, so Scoter’s status is unknown.

L pod visits Monterey Bay on March 31.
Video: Monterey Bay Whale Watch

The importance of the orcas’ social networks, including the sharing of salmon, is described nicely in an article written by Sarah DeWeerdt and published in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound and the Kitsap Sun.

Meanwhile, L pod traveled down the coast to Monterey Bay, Calif., where the whales seemed to be catching chinook from the Sacramento River, according to reports from March 31. Alisa Schulman-Janiger, co-founder of the California Killer Whale Project, was quoted in the San Jose Mercury News:

“They go wherever they can find Chinook salmon…,” she said. “We know they aren’t getting enough food; we know that they’re struggling; and we’re seeing some whales that are skinnier …. This year is a good year for salmon in Monterey Bay…. It’s just great to know that this is a habitat that can still provide them with food.”

Fishing guides, including Monterey Bay Charters, were reporting good fishing when targeting salmon.

The newest calf in the southern resident population, designated L-124, was seen alive and apparently healthy among the whales in Monterey Bay. The calf, who was born in January and called “Lucky” by Ken Balcomb, is the third calf for L-77, a 32-year-old female named Matia. Her first calf survived only a short time, but her second calf, L-119 named Joy, seems to be doing well.

It will be interesting to see when the whales all show up together in Puget Sound this year. J pod tends to pop in and out of Puget Sound all winter, while K and L pods often travel up and down the Washington Coast, sometimes as far as northern California, as L pod did this year. Years ago, the whales all got together in late May or June, staying around the San Juan Islands most of the summer.

In recent years, their movements have become less predictable. Last year, none of the pods showed up during the entire month of May — something that has never happened before, at least not since the first observations were recorded in the early 1970s. See Water Ways, June 29, 2018.

In contrast to the fish-eating southern resident orcas, the transient orcas, which eat marine mammals, have been seen more and more in Puget Sound. An apparent abundance of harbor seals and California sea lions seem to be feeding them well, both in North and South Puget Sound.

As I’ve often reported, transients are the unknowing allies of the endangered southern residents, since they reduce the population of seals and sea lions, which prey upon the salmon that are so important to the residents.

In Canada, Gary Sutton, a captain with the whale-watching company Ocean Ecoventures, counted eight groups of transients in the same area of Georgia Strait on Sunday. If all the individuals in the groups can be confirmed with IDs, it would be a total 41 transients, a possible record aggregation, he says.

“A LOT of socializing ensued with tons of spyhops and vocals,” Gary said in a report to Orca Network. “I managed to capture the majority of them on camera and a few visual IDs.”

As for the southern residents, reporter Simone Del Rosario of Q13 Fox News comes to a provocative and unwelcome conclusion, based on her extensive research for a five-part television series.

“I’ve spent the past year analyzing this question: Is this the last generation of southern resident orcas?

“I’ve looked at the threats to their survival: the lack of prey; contaminants; and vessel disturbance. I’ve interviewed the foremost experts in this field and pressed the politicians who have the power to make a change. I’ve traveled across the state and even to Canada learning about solutions and meeting the people who are pushing them forward.

“A year later, I’ve come to a conclusion, and it’s one I don’t make lightly. There is no question: This is the last generation. Humans — who are responsible for putting these mammals in such a critical state — need to act now if there’s any chance at turning around the killer whales’ decline.”

And so, in effect, she actually leaves the door open for humans to make the changes needed to save the whales. I recommend the series, which can be viewed from five video players on the webpage “The last generation: southern resident orcas in danger of extinction.”

I first confronted the possibility of extinction two years ago in a Water Ways blog post that includes an interview with Ken Balcomb. That was before the death of Scarlet, or J-50, and before a newborn orca calf died to be carried around by its mom. It was before the formation of the governor’s Killer Whale Task Force and the resulting legislation being debated in Olympia.

My question: How long can the orcas remain on the edge of extinction? Or, if I’m feeling optimistic: How long MUST the orcas remain on the edge of extinction?

Sponsor of state oil-spill-prevention bill recalls Exxon Valdez disaster

State Rep. Debra Lekanoff, D-Bow, grew up in the small town of Yakutat, Alaska, where her entire family and most of her friends hunted and fished, following Native American traditions passed down from their ancestors.

Rep. Lekanoff carries with her that indelible perspective, as she goes about the business of law-making. Like all of us, her personal history has shaped the forces that drive her today. Now, as sponsor of House Bill 1578, she is pushing hard for a law to help protect Puget Sound from a catastrophic oil spill.

KTVA, the CBS affiliate in Anchorage, presented a program Sunday on the 30th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. // Video: KTVA-TV

In 1989, Debra, a member of the Tlinget Tribe, was about to graduate from high school when the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound, some 220 miles northwest of her hometown. The spill of 11 million gallons of crude oil ultimately killed an estimated 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles and up to 22 killer whales, along with untold numbers of fish and crabs, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (PDF 11.5 mb). That was 30 years ago this past Sunday.

After graduation, many of Debra’s classmates went to the disaster area and took jobs picking up dead and dying animals covered in oil. While Debra did not visit the devastation, she listened to the terrible stories and read letters written by her friends.

“These were boys who grew up hunting and fishing,” she said. “They knew the importance of natural resources. I can only imagine how they felt picking up the dead animals. We lost a whole pod of orcas from that spill, and today you can still turn over the rocks and find oil underneath.”

The Exxon Valdez oil spill “woke up the state of Alaska” to the devastating threats posed by oil transport, she said, and it triggered an ongoing investment in oil-spill prevention.

Lekanoff moved to Washington state, where she graduated from Central Washington University and eventually went to work for the Swinomish Tribe in North Puget Sound, where she works as government affairs director.

Last year, she was selected by Gov. Jay Inslee to serve on the Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force, trying to find ways to save the critically endangered orcas from extinction. One measure promoted by the task force — and supported by outside studies — was to take additional steps to reduce the risks of an accident involving a tanker or barge.

Debra tells me she has one word that guides her views on the subject of oil transportation: “prevention-prevention-prevention,” which reinforces the idea of redundancy. Tug escorts and “rescue tugs” for oil tankers and barges are part of the redundancy called for in HB 1578. Other recommendations from the Department of Ecology include extra personnel aboard the vessels to watch out for developing conditions.

Computer models can be used to calculate the risks of a catastrophic oil spill in Puget Sound, something I recently wrote about for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound. But the real world does not run on computer models. So it becomes difficult to decide how much risk is acceptable when considering the potential loss of incalculable values, such as fish, wildlife and the Northwest lifestyle.

Rep. Lekanoff, 48, who was first elected to the Legislature last year, said Washington state needs to move away from a pollution-based economy, which has already decimated a vast abundance of salmon while pushing our cherished orcas to the brink of extinction.

The Skagit River in North Puget Sound is the only river left in the Lower 48 states able to sustain all five species of salmon, she said, and now even that river is threatened by proposed mining operations and changing streamflows caused by climate change.

Lekanoff said she sees her role as a person who can build strong relationships between the state, federal and tribal governments to protect and restore natural resources in our region.

“We need to build a better future for the generations to come,” she told me, and that requires looking past short-term gains to consider the long-term results of legislative actions.

As sponsor of HB 1578, a bill drafted and heavily promoted by the Governor’s Office, Lekanoff said the challenge has been to engage with various interest groups, share scientific information and seek out common interests.

“This bill,” she said, “is a clear example of what we can do together. We needed everyone at the table.”

For tanker traffic traveling through Rosario Strait near the San Juan Islands, Lekanoff’s bill would require tug escorts for vessels over 5,000 deadweight tons along with studies to determine what other measures are needed. Currently, tug escorts come into play only for tanker ships over 40,000 deadweight tons, and there are no escort requirements for barges of any size.

The next step will be to get everyone at the table again to discuss the risks of tanker traffic traveling through Haro Straight, a prime feeding ground for orcas in the San Juan Islands, Lekanoff said. Prevention-prevention-prevention — including the potential of tug escorts — will again be a primary topic of discussion.

Lekanoff’s bill passed the House March 7 on a 70-28 vote and moved out of the Senate Committee on Environment, Energy and Technology on Tuesday. The bill will make a stop at the Senate Ways and Means Committee before going to the floor for a vote by all senators.

Amusing Monday: Citizen scientists lend their eyes and ears

Just about anyone interested in becoming a citizen scientist can participate in real-life research projects by connecting with Zooniverse, a website that has been expanding and refining its projects since I first wrote about it in Water Ways in 2017.

Zooniverse enlists the power of many people to analyze raw data of various kinds. As a participant, you sit down at your computer and follow instructions to make observations about nature, history, art, language or other fields of your choosing.

“The major challenge of 21st century research is dealing with the flood of information we can now collect about the world around us,” says the description on the Zooniverse webpage. “Computers can help, but in many fields the human ability for pattern recognition — and our ability to be surprised — makes us superior.”

The accumulation of human observations from a Zooniverse project can be used to actually train computers to make the observations, which ultimately speeds up the process of data analysis even more.

“With our wide-ranging and ever-expanding suite of projects, covering many disciplines and topics across the sciences and humanities, there’s a place for anyone and everyone to explore, learn and have fun in the Zooniverse,” states the description. “To volunteer with us, just go to the Projects page, choose one you like the look of, and get started.”

“These projects produce science,” declares Chris Lintott, professor of astrophysics and the citizen science lead at Oxford University, (at 7:14 into the first video on this page.) “But that’s not the interesting thing about it…. What’s interesting are the people who are participating — a half-million people or so who are registered with the Zooniverse…

“These aren’t people who are already science fans…, nor are they science-phobic. They’re the kind of people who, if they are reading the Metro and there’s a science story, would read it. But they wouldn’t buy “New Scientist.”

While the people participating in Zooniverse contribute to real science projects, they are also learning about cutting-edge science, Lintott says, going on to describe what he knows about the participants.

Here are a few projects that caught my attention:

Floating forests

Giant kelp, a fast-growing seaweed considered critical habitat for many marine species, changes its growth patterns from year to year. Citizen scientists are needed to interpret satellite images, because so far computers are unable to determine the edges of kelp beds from Landsat photos.

“These satellites photograph the entire surface of the earth every 16 days and have been doing so since 1984,” states the description of the project. “When one of our project scientists first began working with these images, he had hoped he could just throw the hundreds of thousands of images into some image classification software, and have the software tell him where kelp was located.

“There’s just one problem: Landsat was not designed to be able to see kelp. Kelp’s reflectance signature (the color of light that it reflects) is just at the edge of the camera’s detection abilities. Because of this, kelp and something as simple as the glint of sun off of a wave look the same to a computer.

“But to a person, the shapes and patterns of kelp forests are fairly obvious. That’s where you come in. By tracing patches of kelp, you can do a far more accurate job than a computer, helping to process this mountain of data!”

Penguin Watch

As described by Chris Lintott in the first video, Penguin Watch asks observers to identify adult and baby penguins from images taken with remote, unmanned cameras that automatically take pictures of penguin colonies over time.

“Currently, there are numerous serious threats to marine predators in the Southern Ocean: namely climate change, fisheries and direct human disturbance,” states a description of the project. “However, despite over a hundred years of study in the region, we have little baseline information against which to measure change…

“Camera technology affords us the ability to deploy terminator-style biologists (they don’t sleep, they don’t eat) in hard-to-reach areas, or in places where human presence might disturb wildlife and therefore disrupt their behavior. By establishing a camera network in the Southern Ocean … we hope to capture novel behaviors and study penguin populations that have never before been observed owing to their remote locations.”

Other projects you might find interesting:

Seabird Watch, a project that classifies seabirds in remote locations

Cedar Creek Eyes on the Wild, a project that identifies animals and their interactions at Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve north of Minneapolis, Minn.

Manatee Chat, a project that classifies the sounds that manatees make in an effort to identify calls related to communications.

Climate Sense: Sea ice, economics, legal issues and the orca task force

The shift to “clean fuels,” such as solar and wind power, is tied up in economics, and it appears that change is coming — with or without a push from government. This week, I read three different and somewhat contradictory reports about this dynamic competition between fossil fuels and renewable energy.

I also took a look at the hard data surrounding Arctic sea ice and reviewed videos of the governor’s orca task force meeting on Monday.

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Climate Sense: Sharing a little optimism about climate change

One of the most optimistic stories I’ve read — and listened to — about climate change comes from Dan Charles, National Public Radio’s food and agriculture reporter. In a three part-series, Dan takes us on a trip to the year 2050, imagining a time when the world has solved the climate change problem.

Also in my readings this week, I’ve stumbled on some stories about scare tactics in Congress and how to turn back the clock on climate emissions.

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Amusing Monday: Orca researcher Jayda Guy finds success in music

Jayda Guy, aka Jayda G, a native of British Columbia, has embraced her dual passions for science and music like few other people in the world today. She has somehow been able to link her experiences as a killer whale researcher to a creative mindset as a musical DJ, singer, songwriter and producer, with a debut album coming out this month.

The new album, “Significant Changes,” was inspired in part by the orcas and the natural wonders of the Salish Sea, where she conducted her studies. The album came together last year, not long after she completed her master’s degree in resource management from Simon Fraser University. Her research focused on the effects of toxic chemicals on our southern resident killer whales.

“I’m trying to bring my two worlds together to bridge the communication gap (and) engage people in a new way,” she told Andy Malt, editor of Complete Music Update. “I don’t know if people in the electronic music world will want to talk about the environment, but I think I should try! I think it’s our duty to use a platform like this in a positive way; that’s our social responsibility.”

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