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One Size Doesn’t Fit All: Different Models For Coastal And Marine Citizen Science

By: Harlan Doliner, Chair of the Maritime Group and member of the Environmental Group at Verrill Dana LLP and President of the Marine & Oceanographic Technology Network (MOTN) and Ariadne Dimoulas, Executive Science Coordinator for Scientific Solutions, Inc., Oceanographic Researcher, Marine Educator, and Science Communicator

Second in a series on the changing face of marine and coastal research and implications for the future

Imagine that you are the master of a merchant ship transiting the Northern Sea Route, across the top of Russia, in winter. You are enveloped in total darkness twenty-four hours a day as you navigate through ever-changing ice conditions, weather, and sea states. Any outside assistance in the event of an emergency is as least several days away. At these high latitudes, communication with your company or search and rescue authorities, as well as the accuracy of your GPS and compass, is inconsistent. At stake is the safety of your vessel, her crew and cargo (perhaps crude oil), and your company’s investment in making these kind of voyages a practical reality. In addition to the avalanche of constantly changing conditions—and despite all the impressive technologies lit up on the bridge—there is the omnipresent concern about what you do not know about depths, bottom conditions, local currents, etc.

One Size Doesn’t Fit All: Different Models For Coastal And Marine Citizen Science 7 of 8

At the recent Arctic Shipping Forum, held late April in Helsinki, Finland, speakers from the world’s shipping interests expressed concerns about the enormous gaps in knowledge of high latitude hydrography, bathymetry, currents, and other parameters. The ships have superb technologies, but the information the technologies process and display is based on woefully lacking data sets, derived in great part from remote sensing such as satellites in orbit. The Arctic region’s remoteness, lack of ports of refuge, and nonexistent port infrastructure all exacerbate knowledge gaps, unreliability of communications, and navigational inaccuracies. Year-round merchant shipping in the Baltic Sea, where about 2,000 vessels are in transit at any given time, demonstrates the commercial feasibility of winter/ice navigation under extreme conditions. However, this is a geographic area where the knowledge base is much more comprehensive and port facilities are more readily available.

How might the Arctic’s data/knowledge gaps and lack of port infrastructure be remedied? What does any of this have to do with citizen science and various models of how it is conducted? As we know from the first installment in this series, citizen science is a process of cooperation in which scientific investigators leverage non-scientists to make observations or gather data—provided data are gathered using methods consistent with applicable standards and practices—that goes beyond saving money to dramatically increase the amount of data and data points, often by orders of magnitude.

In the Arctic, there are several possible ways to implement citizen science:

  1. Recruit Arctic ship masters to perform and record specific observations and document them in standard format logs that would be shared as open source information, drawing on the 19th century example of U.S. Navy Lieutenant Matthew Fontaine Maury with a modern century twist.

  2. Training and equipping local Arctic populations, including indigenous people, to utilize data gathering technologies in conjunction with their (vetted to standards) local knowledge could accelerate filling in data gaps;

  3. Empowering local people to inform and train investigators, merchant shipping, and related interests about relevant information, therefore encouraging knowledge to flow in both directions and strengthening both communities.

A possible effect of Points 2 and 3 above would be preparing local populations to partner in the sustainable siting and development of new port infrastructure. Local populations, in time-honored Arctic tradition, should also participate in decisions about where to pre-position caches of emergency supplies and spill response logistics where they would be most needed and effective.

In this installment of our continuing series on citizen science and marine/coastal research, we look at a few different models of how data are collected, processed, and used—some specifically in relation to the issues prompted by the opening of the Arctic.

Partnering with the Arctic on School-Built Drifters

This coming school year, students and communities around the world may partner with Arctic students and communities to help contribute to the global effort to understand more about the changes happening today. This cooperative connection would be through a joint ocean monitoring project using low-cost, handbuilt ocean current measuring devices called drifters, which oceanographers use to understand ocean currents. Since 2003, the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC) and the Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation (GOMLF) have collaborated to engage students in oceanography through students building drifters. Schools may order a partially completed drifter kit or just a GPS transmitter though GOMLF, download drifter blueprints through www.studentdrifters.org, and buy the remaining supplies at local hardware stores. The drifters are built, labeled with a “who-to-call-if-found” contact number, and decorated reflecting school and/or community pride. The students then reach out to local mariners to help launch their drifters offshore, as drifters washing ashore too soon is not ideal. Fishermen, merchant ships, recreational boats, or oceanographers embarking on research cruises are all examples of partners that have successfully helped students launch their drifters.

The vector plot shows the mean current derived from all historical drifter data at 1-meter depth 1986 to 2016. Figure generated by Xiaojian Liu, a student intern in Manning’s lab with help from Dr. Vitalli Sheremet, a colleague of Manning’s. 2 of 8

The vector plot shows the mean current derived from all historical drifter data at 1-meter depth 1986 to 2016. Figure generated by Xiaojian Liu, a student intern in Manning’s lab with help from Dr. Vitalli Sheremet, a colleague of Manning’s.

 

Drifters are thrown overboard where they drift with the current; only the GPS unit is above the waterline. The GPS is set to ping at periodic intervals. From the 1,000+ drifter tracks in the Gulf of Maine from the last fifteen years, we can now depict the mean currents in bins around the region.

NOAA WHOI Manning Lab and local students about to launch their drifters off Cape Cod, Massachusetts in late summer 2016. Bingwei, inventor of the diamond-shaped drifter, shown holding a completed bamboo diamond-shaped drifter to the far right. 4 of 8

NOAA WHOI Manning Lab and local students about to launch their drifters off Cape Cod, Massachusetts in late summer 2016. Bingwei, inventor of the diamond-shaped drifter, shown holding a completed bamboo diamond-shaped drifter to the far right. Photo credit: NOAA WHOI Manning Lab.

 

Drifter design has been improved upon throughout the years to be more effective and more biodegradable. A NOAA Manning Lab member, Bingwei, designed the most recent and most biodegradable version of the NOAA student drifters. Bingwei is a graduate student from Shandong University of Science and Technology in ShanDong, China on an exchange program since 2014. Bingwei designed a “diamond” or “star-shaped” drifter as a side project, similar to a drifter commonly used in the 1970s but with alternative materials: “Bamboo is biodegradable and tough. We want to make a standard drifter but have it be eco-friendly drifter. Jim [Bingwei’s lab mentor] wants us to use bamboo to build drifter. He asked us to design the Bamboo Drifter.”

The first prototypes, built with bamboo harvested from a neighbor’s backyard, were launched in the summer of 2016. In June 2017, twelve of the diamond-shaped drifters will be launched beyond the shelf edge south of Martha’s Vineyard as a part of a WHOI Biology Department Research project to study Atlantic Bluefin Tuna larvae transport.

In a recent example of students participating in drifter research, students at Scarborough High School in Scarborough, Maine came back from April vacation this year to a big surprise. Bingwei, NOAA lab members, along with staff from the GMLF, visited Scarborough High to introduce students to oceanography and coding and invite them to contribute valuable data to oceanographers through creating their own drifters. Even though the Scarborough students were not initially enthusiastic about marine science, a later survey collected from the participants reported that 100% enjoyed the workshop. Over half reported they learned about oceanography opportunities interesting to them, particularly enjoying the “hands-on” portion where students were able to help prepare the project for Atlantic Blue Tuna Larvae transport.

Graph depicting real-time surface currents moving at a speed of 1 meter per second generated by Mid-Atlantic Reginal Coastal Ocean Observing System (MARACOOS) on May 5, 2017 at 16:00. 5 of 8

Graph depicting real-time surface currents moving at a speed of 1 meter per second generated by Mid-Atlantic Reginal Coastal Ocean Observing System (MARACOOS) on May 5, 2017 at 16:00. The ocean current graphic is found at https://marine.rutgers.edu/cool/maracoos/imagery/. Real-time information found at http://assets.maracoos.org/

It is hoped, with the support of the Arctic Council (a conglomerate of Arctic Countries, First Nation Peoples, and observer nations such as South Korea, China, India, and Italy), that these diamond-shaped drifters will be launched into Arctic waters. There, they will serve not only as the vessel to better understand Arctic environments, but to connect school students from around the globe with their peers at the top of the world. Students, under the guide of a teacher, can build drifters in their classrooms and ship them to schools in the Arctic for reassembly and deployment. Southern schools can partner with shipping companies to transport their drifters to Arctic waters for deployment. Arctic schools who choose to participate can launch their drifters in waters close to them. All participants can watch in real-time to see how the ocean currents connect their areas around the world.

Scarborough High School students drawing the NOAA symbol and “finder instructions” on drifters for WHOI Biology Department Research project to study Atlantic Blue Tuna larvae transport. 3 of 8

Scarborough High School students drawing the NOAA symbol and “finder instructions” on drifters for WHOI Biology Department Research project to study Atlantic Blue Tuna larvae transport. Photo Credit: Ariadne Dimoulas.

 

This is an ongoing effort to develop a worldwide Arctic alliance citizens science initiative. Schools interested in participating are invited to contact Ariadne Dimoulas at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. There is still time to join this international effort to monitor a rapidly changing environment, giving students the chance to be at the forefront of this cutting edge endeavor.

Data Can Flow in Two Directions

Another example of where citizen-generated drifter data are utilized is the Mid-Atlantic Regional Coastal Ocean Observing System (MARACOOS) (http://ioos.noaa. gov/regions/maracoos). Drifter data are displayed in their asset view map, along with real-time information collected from ocean buoys, satellites, and science stations. Visitors to the site are able to see current movements in addition to a myriad of coastal and ocean information for the Mid- Atlantic area (http://assets.maracoos.org/).

Scarborough High School drifter workshop on April 29, 2017; students at Scarborough High School with Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation and Manning NOAA WHOI lab. 6 of 8

Scarborough High School drifter workshop on April 29, 2017; students at Scarborough High School with Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation and Manning NOAA WHOI lab. Photo credit: Ariadne Dimoulas.

 

MARACOOS (and its sister regional associations) obtain data through a cooperative partnership of government, academic, and citizen/nongovernmental sources. Data include thermal imagery, high-frequency radar and satellite images, drifter output, etc. The data are then made available in real-time to fishermen, mariners, researchers, and other users of the MARACOOS website. Thus, in addition to simply supplying data to investigators, citizen-gathered data are conveyed back to the non-scientists and others. The drifter tracks are visible on at least three other regional association websites as well, including NERACOOS (www.neracoos.org/drifters) in the northeast.

NOAA WHOI Manning lab members, Bingwei, Vitalli Sheremet, and undergraduate student Jess deploying a diamond-shaped drifter for its first ocean water test, July 2016. 8 of 8

NOAA WHOI Manning lab members, Bingwei, Vitalli Sheremet, and undergraduate student Jess deploying a diamond-shaped drifter for its first ocean water test, July 2016. Photo credit: Ariadne Dimoulas.

 

Doing Science While Staying at Home

You do not have to be a part of a school or government organization to get involved with citizen science nor do you have to venture afield. A very different model of citizen science is Zooniverse (www.zooniverse.org). While most other citizen science models leverage non-scientists to gather data in the field, Zooniverse utilizes laypeople to assist professional researchers by remotely reviewing previously gathered data from their personal computers or mobile devices. The projects are posted according to categories of disciplines. Field researchers may have hundreds of thousands of data points, such as images, videos, or historical records, but lack the people or financial resources to review them in-house. At Zooniverse, researchers post projects that would lend themselves to participation by citizens interested in the subject of the study. For example, as of 27 March 2017, over 4,700 volunteer researchers had reviewed almost 94,000 images of Steller sea lions in the Aleutian Islands.

This series examines where and how citizen science is being utilized for marine research, its impacts on the work of professional researchers, and its implications for science and society going forward. Future articles in this series will address how IOOS incorporates citizen-made drifter data across the United States, citizens’ utilization of advanced technologies such as robotics, citizen participation in national programs to monitor their local environment such as the National Estuary Program, and the continuing challenges posed by the opening of the Arctic.

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