Thursday, August 21, 2014

Crowd-sourcing Science in the Arctic...

Traveling to Anchorage, a flight that can take 7 or 8 hours provides plenty of time to catch up on reading, listening to podcasts, and browsing through recent scientific journals. Today was no exception; I was reading through the August 1, 2014 issue of Science magazine and came across an interesting article on page 494. It was entitled "Fake flowers fool Arctic insects" and provided a brief summary of how a combination of sticky plastic flowers and exclusion screens were being used to study pollination of Dryas across the Arctic. 

Pollination and its sensitivity to insects, wind, and weather, is an important topic in ecology and is often studied in many ecosystems around the world. So what caught my interest in this particular study? Rather than send out scientists to establish experiments across the Arctic, ecologists at the University of Helsinki used volunteers, including citizen scientists, to establish the required experiments from Alaska to Finland. Twenty teams participated in the study using materials provided through the Global Dryas Project (

 There are two aspects of this project that I saw as particularly interesting. The first was the extensive spatial deployment of the experiment; 20 sites or more throughout the Arctic. Collaboration and coordination among groups allowed this to happen. The second was the aspect of crowd-sourcing science. This is probably not exactly the appropriate terminology to use in describing this research, and thus my apologies if I misrepresent this experiment. However, one can envision dozens of groups coming together in an organic, bottom-up fashion to achieve the scientific goals of such a project. I find this especially attractive and one that could possibly be used to gain insights into the breadth of changes taking place across the Arctic.

Could crowd-sourcing be used to gather spatially-explicit information on thermokarst formation, permafrost temperatures, thaw depth, or shrub expansion in Alaska and beyond? What would this web-based interface look like and could it generate the volume of data necessary to derive useful and scientifically-defensible conclusions? I'd like to think it could...

Oh, and did I say long flights to Alaska also allowed plenty of time to think?