In this aerial view from a drone, water carves a winding channel down the surface of a glacier during summer on Norway's Svalbard archipelago on July 31, 2020. Sunniva Sorby and Hilde Fålun Strøm, two citizen scientists, spent 19 months in this region collecting data for research.

(Photograph by Sean Gallup / Getty Images)

More Citizen Science, Please

Citizen science and local knowledge play an important role in our response to climate change, the lPCC report confirms. The Frontline talks to folks on the ground taking science into their own hands.

On Monday, the final installment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) sixth assessment report dropped. We now have a full picture of where the climate crisis stands. In short? Time is running out to cut emissions. If our greenhouse gas emissions don’t peak by 2025, the international goal of staying within 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming will be impossible.

 

So, what can you do to help? Well, the options are “limitless,” as climate writer Mary Heglar once told me. If you’re unsure where to start, what about participatory research where you’re the scientist? This field can help you connect more deeply to where you live—or take you to some of our planet’s most magnificent landscapes.

 

Across the globe, communities and even individuals are working to gather data for climate and environmental science. This is most commonly known as citizen science, but this type of research goes by different names depending on how it’s conducted. Regardless of your preferred terminology, citizen science “can help deepen climate knowledge and sharing,” according to the IPCC working group two report.

 

Welcome to The Frontline, where we can all be scientists. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate director of Atmos. You don’t need a fancy degree or university job to get out into the field. All you need is curiosity. As the IPCC reports remind us, science is crucial to solving the climate crisis. We need more scientists to help us figure out how.

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the thick of the pandemic as the world went into lockdown, Sunniva Sorby and Hilde Fålun Strøm were stationed in the high Arctic of Norway. They wound up spending 19 months there, becoming the first women to overwinter in the Norwegian Arctic without men.

 

“We made history in 2020,” Strøm said. 

 

The cofounders of Hearts in the Ice, their personal citizen science project, were there on a mission to collect data for climate research, including ice core and phytoplankton samples. The work might’ve started out as sport, but it has quickly ramped up in urgency as communities begin to feel the impacts of climate change. 

 

“We are so many citizens and too few scientists,” Strøm said.

 

Later this year, the duo will be heading to the Canadian Arctic to meet Indigenous communities and begin a yearslong effort to share their tools and equipment so that local people can monitor their own backyards through data and numbers. And that’s how the most critical work is happening—science by the people for the people.

 

“We’re trying to put the power and the voice back in the hands of the Indigenous in the Canadian Arctic,” Sorby said.

 

The IPCC working group two report acknowledges the key role citizen science, local knowledge, and Indigenous knowledge play in increasing public awareness on the climate crisis, as well as influencing public behavior. Citizen science opens the door to people from all walks of life being involved in the dissection of the climate crisis. Most importantly, it empowers individuals to uncover more about their environments—or to convince decision-makers of what they’ve known all along.

 

That’s why Sacoby Wilson prefers the term “empowerment science.”

“We want physical change—material change—on the ground, not studies of pain and problems without correcting the problem.”

Omega R. Wilson
West End Revitalization Association

“We’ve got to open up science to everyone,” said Wilson, a professor of environmental health at the University of Maryland-College Park. “In the case of community science, it’s about collecting data that elucidates the exposure burdens that people experience.”

 

Wilson’s work focuses primarily on communities of color and low-income communities that bear disproportionate exposure to air pollution. More and more communities are now taking the science into their own hands to measure air quality and make a case for legislators to protect their communities from industry projects that threaten their public health. 

 

Omega R. Wilson and Brenda Ann Wilson, cofounders of environmental justice group West End Revitalization Association, are a married couple in North Carolina who have been working closely with Wilson. They seek to use science to help identify threats to their community and leverage legal action in response. Their efforts so far have stopped the construction of an interstate highway and spurred the development of sewage lines and paved streets.

 

“We want physical change—material change—on the ground,” Omega said, “not studies of pain and problems without correcting the problem.”

 

There’s an expertise that lives within frontline communities. It’s an expertise that comes with lived experience. Mónica Ramírez-Andreotta, associate professor of environmental science at the University of Arizona, realized that from an early age. She grew up surrounded by family members without formal academic degrees, but she didn’t need institutional recognition to appreciate their talent and knowledge. That’s why she’s also dedicated to working directly with community members to transform the way science is created and utilized.

 

“I’ve been living and working and growing up in this space—with my family in Mexico, with family in the border area, living in the border area in Tucson,” Ramírez-Andreotta said. “You bear witness to different forms of social and environmental degradation, but you also bear witness to resiliency.”

 

Forget the white coats and labs. You can bring a wealth of difference to the climate conversation with a little bit of curiosity. Trust in community. Trust in science. And, then, you’ll find the solutions.

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