Thankful for citizen science

CITIZEN SCIENCE is the title of today’s exploration of natural happenings or events. We can thank a well-trained science enthusiast and former President of the Untied States, Thomas Jefferson, for his observations. And he wanted citizens to find ways to partake in the collection of data. Jefferson called it a civic duty for all citizens who claim their right to be informed and educated, who want to be self-governing to curb corruption, privilege and aristocracy. He began with a simple task of instructing each county deputy in Virginia to use a thermometer to record twice each day the temperature and wind direction.

Fast forward to the present day. In the legacy of Jefferson’s vision, in every state and with the help of thousands of ordinary people, not necessarily trained in the sciences but nevertheless engaged, people from all walks of life observe, measure, analyze and check on things in the natural world. Even if it is just a hobby, noting the time and place and special circumstances of all manner of interests, it all adds up to data collection. Some folks count butterflies, others intently watch birds every season and arrival/departure dates of migrating flocks. Others note spring flower emerging times, mushroom picking times, fish behavior after long winters, arrival times in the fall for ducks and geese. You name it and people observe and record those happenings.

Jefferson’s vision to learn about the new lands of America enlisted Lewis and Clark to embark on this journey. But first he felt it his duty to help train the men in the art of scientific observations, data collection, and note taking for accuracy purposes. Weather observations were just one facet of the President’s scheme at a time long before meteorologists and climatologists would learn to specialize in these studies. Citizens could do many of these tasks. And they did.

Jefferson had heard the rumors and inaccuracies of the New World in North America as portrayed by his European counterparts. The people of Europe claimed that the temperature and humidity of the New World produced animals that were smaller, weaker and just plain inferior to those of Europe. Weather data collected from citizens proved that America had a higher sunny-to-cloudy day ratio than Europe. Observations by Lewis and Clark on their Voyage of Discovery documented the land, its weather, its wildlife and its native indigenous people’s culture and local knowledge. Jefferson’s delight when he was able to see, and read the reports from Lewis and Clark helped a new nation prove to Europe that this land called America had what it would take to compete with any country in the world.

Today’s citizen scientists continue to look, listen and learn from nature on a wide range of topics or interests. One might call it a global hobby, connecting people and their real-world leisure observations to virtual databases. And in today’s environment of instant communication devices, observers of butterflies in one part of the world can send a message and photos to any place on earth’s surface almost instantaneously. People who watch beaches can note garbage washing ashore from across the ocean, or spot whales migrating, or tell of advancing storms. Backyard bird watchers can tell the entire world of the most recent, and possibly rare sighting of a feathered critter that normally belongs on another continent. The list is endless of what can be documented.

Citizen science is unpaid, unselfish time spend collaborating noteworthy events to share between scientists and society. This volunteer work helps stretch tight budgets. Sometimes these observations help paint a picture on a grand scale to look at the big picture that scientists may never discover alone. Observations help all of us slow down enough to observe the natural world. In return all who participate gain discoveries large and small that the individual will never forget. For some, this hobby of citizen science may be the beginning of a career they never knew existed if it was not for their curiosity and commitment. With a child-like pleasure of wonder and enlightenment, observations can propel us to a larger and more thorough understanding of this world.

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ROBINS in the Marshalltown area help illustrate what I just mentioned above. What a delight for several folks when a large flock of robins descended upon a crab apple tree to eat on Jan. 26. This bird seemingly out-of place at this time of year was going about its business of finding food, eating and returning the next day to do it all over again. We normally associate robins as an indicator of Spring’s arrival. March 8 is what a bird migration schedule will tell us is the normal time to expect robins in full force. The answer is of course is true that the majority of robins will return at or about that time every year. So the citizen science observers seeing robins now are simply enjoying the event, documenting it and telling others. It is simple and fun and certainly interesting.

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This winter’s weather has been interesting. And there is a lot of winter left before the official start of Spring begins on March 19. We have already experienced relative warmth and severe cold, no snow and then too much snow, and winds strong enough to blow trucks off roadways. And this weekend a temporary January thaw with warm winds and milder air temperatures is lessening the sting of winter. We endure and adjust to what nature gives us in this very short term time frame. When it is all over, us humans will try to summarize what type of winter season we had during late 2015 and early 2016. We will compare it to past seasons just to acknowledge how our observations of what really happened fit into long-term climatic averages.

Here is a bit of food for thought. This will help us get a grip of past events over the very, very long term. We can see what happened during mankind’s written history on earth by noting the struggles and successes of human populations as they attempted to cope with nature and day-to-day weather. But if the day-to-day weather, averaged over several hundreds of years is examined more closely, a different set of parameters is painted for us.

In general, human populations have dealt with favorable and unfavorable trends over and over again. A starting point for this review is the year zero up to about 225 AD. It was called the Roman Warm Period. It was followed by the Dark Ages Cold Period from about 225-800 AD. It in turn was followed by the next category, the Medieval Warm period.

The Medieval Warm Period or Medieval Climate Optimum was a blessing in that warmer conditions prevailed for at least 400 years from 860-300 AD. Agriculture thrived and forged its way northward as far as people could make it happen. Although not a globally uniform change, this warm period in northern European latitude sites was a welcome respite. Possible causes were increased solar activity of the sun, fewer large volcanoes and changes in ocean water circulation.

What followed the Medieval Climate Optimum was the flip side of the coin so to speak. It was the Little Ice Age from about the year 1300 until 1850, another long stretch of over 500 years. It was not a true ice age but rather a significant cooling trend that caused longer winters, shorter summers and significant agricultural crop failures and subsequent famine where abundance had once been the norm. Rivers that had not frozen over in the past were routinely solid ice from shore to shore each winter. Armies at that time marched into other countries by traversing ice bound rivers while war ships were locked tight in ice.

The earth’s mood swings expressed themselves again as we are now getting into modern time of the current Modern Warm Period. By looking at the ups and downs of long term climate cycles, one cannot help but ask why and how these tremendous large scale flip-flops happen. It is at best a complicated chaos, and one cannot define any simple cause and effect. But one has to give credit to our sun in its location within one arm of the milky way galaxy. It turns out our sun has its own mood swings which have been studied. Scientists have identified cycles of 11 years (Schwabe), Hale cycles of 22 years average, Gleissberg cycles of 87 years, Suess/deVries cycles at 210 years, Eddy at 1,000 and Hallstatt cycles of 2,300 years frequency. Sun spots are a big part of this observation which are a lack of or the opposite of huge magnetic pulses and storms from the sun’s surface.

Combining these sun cycles with the much larger Milankovitch noted earth orbital factors sets the stage for even longer geologic time frames of huge hemispheric ice age dominances followed by inter-glacial warm periods. The earth’s circular to somewhat elliptic orbital path has a 100,000 year cycle. It is called eccentricity. The tilt of the earth’s axis (obliquity) ranges between 21.5 and 24.5 degrees and back again on a 40,000 year cycle. Now add in precession, or wobble, of the earth’s rotation on its axis at a 20,000 year cycle. These overlapping frequencies sometimes come together to create a perfect storm effect for world wide cooling and glaciation. With enough geologic time, these overlapping functions reverse allowing for inter-glacial warming phases.

Humans live within one of those inter-glacial geologic warm time frames right now. Be glad we do because the alternative is not a scenario human populations will cope with very well. Iowa’s geologic history over the past 2.1 million years has glaciation cycles recorded in rock strata at least eight times. Glaciations prior to this may well have happened but the evidence has been severely obliterated by plate tectonics, volcanic activity, and erosion of the landscapes of the continents by weathering actions.

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“Climate is what we expect, weather is what we get.”

– Mark Twain

Garry Brandenburg is a graduate of Iowa State University with BS degree in Fish & Wildlife Biology. He is the retired director of the Marshall County Conservation Board. Contact him at PO Box 96, Albion, IA 50005.