Citizen science the firstthat comes to mind for some when they hear this might be something like counting insects or birds during an organization's annual drive for contributions. But at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Washington DC, young scientists presented citizen science applications in a highly complex field: Earth observation.
At the "Next Generation Plenary" on Thursday, five up and coming researchers presented their projects that involved both satellite imaging and contributions from people like you and me on the ground.
The "Harnessing Citizen Science for the Future of Earth Observation" event was one of seven plenary discussions, 33 keynote lectures and more than 1,900 presentations by researchers and corporate representatives as part of the IAC's "technical program."
The congress is hosted by the International Astronautical Federation, which was created in 1951 to "establish a dialogue between scientists around the world and to lay the foundation for international space cooperation." The International Astronautical Congress is a big part of encouraging dialog between scientists from a variety of different fields and across the world. This year's IAC in Washington DC is the 70th iteration of the event.
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Aerospace companies and national space programs present the results of their work at the IAC exhibition
Helping NASA to model landslides
"Citizen science is a great way to empower local communities to have a handle on what's going on around them," Caroline Juang, a PhD student at Columbia University, told DW.
At Thursday's plenary, Juang presented the "Landslide Reporter," a project she launched and managed for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). People anywhere in the world can report landslides that occurred near them or that they read about in news coverage.
Using the Landslide Reporter app, citizen scientists will share where exactly the event happened, what caused it, whether it was near a road, how bad the damage is, etc. This way, they add more information than remote data, like from satellite imaging, could ever supply.
A researcher like Juang validates all data sent in by citizen scientists. These data points then get added to a global landslide map that NASA has been compiling for 12 years. The goal: to one day be able to predict landslides and save lives. And it's going well.
"Over the 13 months that this program has existed, we've received more than 100 data points that we entered into our system," the 24-year-old told the audience at the IAC plenary. "This has improved NASA's modeling efforts."
Tourist snapshots and satellite images
Elsewhere in the world, citizen scientists play a vital role in tracking the glacier shrinkagethat's caused by global warming andcontributes to rising sea levels. Tourists traveling to glaciers can upload photos of the frozen giants to the app IceKing. Scientists then analyze these high-res pictures and incorporate the information in their research.
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Glaciers attract millions of tourists every year - why should their snapshots go to waste?
"Scientists have surveys to gather information about melting glaciers," COO and co-founder of IceKing, Fabiana Milza, told listeners at the panel discussion. But going and examining glaciers in person is an expensive endeavor and satellites don't show them up close and personal. That's where the tourists come in.
"Ten million people take glacier trips every year," Milza said excitedly. Those of them that download the IceKing app can choose a world region, pick the glacier they're about to see and will then receive information about it. Once they're back in a place with a good internet connection, they can upload their own photos to the app.
In addition to merging satellite imaging and tourist snapshots, IceKing also offers advice on sustainable traveling, like what type of lodging to stay near the glaciers and how to get there so citizen scientists can prepare for their next trip.
"People are becoming more aware of the effect their daily choices have, also while traveling," Milza said.
'There's space for everyone'
So citizen science does not only help with Earth observation efforts. It also works the other way around being a citizen scientist also influences those who are involved in the effort. Juang says it's a good gateway to get people interested in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). After that, those who caught the science bug can share their enthusiasm with others.
"STEM outreach is so important," Juang said. "Good role models is what got me into science."
Read more:ESA's Sentinel-3b satellite marks the next step in the Copernicus earth observation program
Students in Thailand use the GLOBE Program's app to identify mosquito larvae
Kristin Wegner was one of the moderators of Thursday's panel. She is a project manager with the Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE) Program, where she heads up a project that has citizen scientists help battle the Zika virus by collecting and identifying mosquito larvae.
"There is space for everyone to contribute" in citizen science, Wegner told DW. "It's a good opportunity to share the benefits of science."
Earth observation satellites such as the European Space Agency's Proba-V collect daily images that allow for the tracking of environmental changes over time. The images above - taken in April 2014, July 2015 and January 2016 (left to right) - offer crystal-clear insight into the gradual evaporation of Lake Poopo, once Bolivia's second largest lake - due at least in part to climate change.
No matter how long volcanoes sleep, they're always in a bad mood when they wake up. The International Space Station was passing overhead when the Sarychev volcano, located in the Kuril Islands of Russia, erupted in 2009. Astronauts were able to snap a picture through a hole in the clouds. From dense ash to clouds of condensed water, virtually all natural phenomena can be examined from outer space.
Every year, wildfires devastate the landscape - and ecology - in numerous countries around the world. Too often, these are caused by humans. This was also the case in Indonesia, where farmers burned peat rainforest areas for agriculture. On the island of Borneo and Sumatra, satellites detected fire hot spots in September 2015, and the plume of grey smoke that triggered air quality alerts.
In Germany, parents warn their children that if they don't finish their meals, it's going to rain. And indeed, in 2013 it rained, so much that some of central Europe's major rivers overflowed their banks. As shown in this image from 2013, the Elbe burst its banks following unprecedented rainfall. In the photo, muddy water covers the area around Wittenberg, in the German state of Saxony-Anhalt.
A strong storm can cause irreparable damage through intense winds and storm surges from the sea. Space-based information is crucial in following development of such storms: intensity, the direction it's moving, wind speed in the eastern Pacific Ocean near Mexico, this satellite image helped determine how tropical storm Sandra reached winds of 160 kilometers per hour by November 25, 2015.
Satellites also play a key role in monitoring climate change and, inevitably, the process of melting ice. From space, scientists were able to document how several glaciers around the globe have receded - as well as the subsequent rise in sea level. This photograph, taken from the International Space Station, shows the retreat of the Upsala glacier in Argentine Patagonia from 2002 to 2013.
Dust often covers remote deserts - however, in September 2015, satellites offered this impressive view of Middle East areas enveloped by a dust storm, or haboob, affecting large populated regions. What satellites can observe from space supports air quality sensors on the ground to understand patterns on how the storms start and develop. These findings can improve forecasting methods.
These are the words NASA used to describe the lack of snow on California's Mount Shasta, a crucial source of water for the region. Images documenting drought over the past years have consistently been showing brown mountains that should be white, and bare earth where people seek water. As ice melts, drought grows.
Author: Irene Banos Ruiz
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