Community science: A way to help

I recently touched on the concept of ecosystem services, and I wanted to expand on that a little today, and highlight an opportunity for people in Florida (and everywhere else) to help out.

To be very brief, ecosystem services are the ways in which the other forms of life that surround us help humanity simply by going about their lives. Bats eat insects that might otherwise spread disease or damage crops. Earthworms aerate the topsoil and move nutrients around. Whales literally stir the oceans by being huge and moving vertically in the water column. Insects pollinate crops. Plants produce oxygen, and so on.

Another key concept here is that of biodiversity. Biodiversity generally refers to the number of different species in a given area (species richness), as well as the health of those populations. At first glance, it may seem that a healthy ecosystem has each species in its niche, but in general if you remove one, others will adapt to take advantage of the gap.

Humans have been managing our surroundings in one way or another for many thousands of years, and as I’ve said before, we have no way to stop doing so. Our only choice is to try to do it in a way that will promote biodiversity and ecosystem resilience. Doing so would be impossible without a clear understanding of the current state of our ecosystems, how we are affecting them, and what results come from our efforts to change those effects.

Specialization has allowed humanity to achieve amazing things by using diverse skills in concert. The downside is that we rarely know a whole lot about specialties other than our own. This ignorance creates a gap that can be exploited by dishonest actors, or even honest folks who just get the wrong idea. That means that whenever there’s an article about a species going extinct, there’s always someone asking the reasonable question, “how do they know?”

The answer isn’t too hard to find, of course, but people often lack the time, energy, or interest to go looking. In brief, we know what’s happening in our ecosystems because thousands of people of all levels of expertise spend their lives catching and counting plants and animals, checking their bodies for industrial byproducts and other pollutants, and so on. It’s a painstaking, sometimes dangerous task, and also very rewarding.

In college I participated in a couple animal surveys, including one that was responsible for saving a species of Bahamian rock iguanas. Every year, conditions allowing, a team of biologists and students spends about a week trying to catch, identify, and measure every single member of the population. Often the breeding season is also monitored, using different methods. It’s hard work, but it’s how we know how the population is doing, what threats it faces, and so on.

I’ve been part of similar efforts monitoring freshwater turtle species, and grassland snake species, and I’ve worked with scientists doing the same for insects, bats, plants, and birds. In my childhood I spent many hours playing in the Middlesex Fells around Boston MA while my father counted native and invasive plants for his graduate degrees.

I also worked with groups who organized every day members of the community to help in those efforts.  Every year, millions of people of all ages help ecologists by reporting sightings of birds, flowers, insects, frog calls, and so on, as opportunity or hobbies dictate. Those reports can be part of an organized study, or they can be made directly to relevant government agencies. In the latter case, there will be someone like me who goes through the reports to determine their likely accuracy. One common example is that a “cobra sighting” in the American Midwest is almost certainly a terrified Hognose snake trying to look scary.

I’m writing this post because Tegan came across an opportunity for folks in Florida to help with such a project, and it’s something I keep forgetting to write about.

Since I wasn’t sure what was up with this dude, I did what I always do whenever I see something weird going on with a wild animal; I called my local Fish & Wildlife! This might sound like a crazy reaction to seeing a splotchy turtle but I actually learned something extremely important that I would love for my followers (especially those in Florida) to know about too. After calling F&W I spoke with the turtle specialist for quite some time, as it turns out there is an unknown pathogen killing softshell turtles in Florida, and biologists are desperate to find the cause. They need our help to do this! The biologist that I spoke with says they’re relying on civilian reports to find cases for further study, so it’s incredibly important to spread the word and make sure people know how to report any abnormal appearance or behavior in turtles that they see.

Fortunately my splotchy turtle (I call him Uncle Walter) doesn’t seem to be sick based on his presentation or behavior! The turtle experts examined his photos and at this point they agree he is probably just piebald, though they asked me to keep an eye on him and make sure his condition doesn’t change. I’m so happy that I am armed with knowledge I can use to monitor him and his friends in the face of this worrisome unknown illness.

To my friends here in Florida- if you see ANY wild turtle that looks sick, weak, distressed, or abnormal please contact Fish and Wildlife immediately using the information provided below! To my non-Fl friends, if you have any contacts that enjoy herping or just outdoor activity in the state please let them know about this as well. Our turtles are very dear to us and reporting possible illness is the best way we can help find what’s killing these animals.

These projects are everywhere. While I was working for the Wisconsin DNR I was able to see some data that’s exempted from things like the Freedom of Information Act, not because of anything related to national security, but because making the exact locations of endangered species easy to find leaves them open to harm from the illegal pet trade, animal parts trade, and people whose quest for riches is blocked by laws protecting those species.

These projects are everywhere.

If you are reading this, the odds are very good that if you do a search for “citizen science” or “community science”(a term I prefer), a local species you like, and your area, you’ll be able to find something. If that doesn’t work, you can contact local nature centres, natural history museums, or universities, or look for hobbyist clubs. If you go through all of that and can’t find anything, let me know and I’m willing to bet I can find something.

Responding to climate change, and to human destruction of the ecosystems we rely on requires a massive amount of information. Science at it’s best is a collective effort, and with the ubiquity of cameras and recording equipment, helping that effort has never been easier. If you can’t see, you may be able to help with frog or bird call surveys. If you can’t do any field work, there are always data that need to be processed, or you could count animals via video, and you can always help to publicise these projects. If you have the time, energy, and interest, go see what your options are!


If you want to help pay for the content of this blog, cover the costs of my recent move, and feed my pets, please head over to the Oceanoxia Collective on Patreon. My patrons are a wonderful group of people who give according to their abilities that I might live and work according to my needs. I’m grateful for every one of them, and you could join their ranks for as little as one U.S. dollar per month!

Proxy measurements can provide warnings of what’s to come

What does “sea level” mean? How do you go about measuring it? Those with any experience in large bodies of water know that “level” is rarely a realistic description. Even without the moon distorting the Earth and driving the tides as it orbits us, swells and waves mean that most ocean surfaces are constantly moving up and down. Beyond that, areas with a large amount of dense matter – like mountains and ice sheets – will pull water towards themselves, causing higher sea levels in their gravity wells, and lower sea levels in other areas.

Measuring sea level requires taking thousands of different sorts of measurements all over the world, and for all that complexity, sea level represents just a tiny fraction of what’s happening in the oceans, let alone global climate change as a whole.

So how can we measure the rate of climate change? What does that even mean? Calculating the rate at which heat is being trapped, based on greenhouse gas levels, is pretty straightforward. We’ve known the basics of that for over a century, and it’s how we have headlines like “Earth is heating at a rate equivalent to five atomic bombs per second“. The problem is that that heat doesn’t necessarily stay as heat. There are a myriad of ways in which thermal energy can be converted to kinetic or chemical energy, on top of things that are hard to measure like deep ocean temperature changes.

Most of the heat the planet has been absorbing has gone into the oceans, but even so, scientists have been detecting biological and physical changes all over the planet that are driven by the rise in temperature.

And that brings up another question – how much does a given change in temperature actually matter? For humanity’s purposes, there are two main lines of inquiry to look at. The one that tends to get the most focus, for obvious reasons, is the effect on day to day and year to year temperatures. Will heat waves get worse? Will rainfall change? These are important questions to answer, but they might be less important than questions about the non-human parts of the biosphere.

How will a given change in temperature affect the wildlife where you live? Some of that will be a matter of precipitation or heat tolerance – same as with humans – but some will be increased pressure from new species moving into areas that used to be too cold, or too wet for them to survive. The temperature change we’ve seen thus far has already been affecting ecosystems all over the planet. Figuring out what those changes are, and what, precisely, has been driving them, can help us understand what is likely to happen as the planet continues to warm.  These “proxy” measurements won’t tell us what temperature the planet is, but they will help us draw a connection between the heat we know has been trapped by rising greenhouse gas levels, and the changes we’re seeing on the ground. That’s how you begin to build a projection of “if CO2 levels rise to Xppm, it will probably have Y result”. We can’t see or feel the change in atmospheric gas levels, but we can see and feel follow-on results of that change.

Every time a research team runs a model to try to calculate how all these lines of data will interact, they tend to run a pretty wide set, allowing for different scenarios. The “worst-case” and “best-case” models bracket the most likely outcome, based on the data currently available, and the current understanding of those data. The problem here is that the current global changes are unlike anything that has ever happened in recorded history. Every year we enter new territory, which means that historical data are always going to be less reliable.

That’s why proxy measurements are so important. “Bio-indicators” like migrating birds and flowering plants give us insight into what climate change is doing right now to those species whose lives are most closely attuned to climate conditions.

Ice melt is another such proxy – it lets us see how fast energy is being absorbed and “spent” on converting solid water into liquid. Even if our historical data continues to point to the planet being on a “middle of the road” trajectory, if the ice is melting in line with a worse trajectory, then we need to check our numbers, and think hard about what’s headed our way.

Melting on the ice sheets has accelerated so much over the past three decades that it’s now in line with the worst-case climate warming scenarios outlined by scientists.

A total of 28 trillion metric tons of ice was lost between 1994 and 2017, according to a research paper published in The Cryosphere on Monday. The research team led by the University of Leeds in the U.K. was the first to carry out a global survey of global ice loss using satellite data.

“The ice sheets are now following the worst-case climate warming scenarios set out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,” lead author Thomas Slater said in a statement. “Although every region we studied lost ice, losses from the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets have accelerated the most.”

Ice melt from sheets and glaciers contributes to global warming and indirectly influences sea level rise, which in turn increases the risk of flooding in coastal communities. Earth’s northern and southern poles are warming more than twice as fast as the rest of the planet. In 2020, a year of record heatArctic sea ice extent hovered around the lowest ever for most of the year.

As I’ve mentioned before, I think it’s reasonable to feel badly about news like this. The world on which most of us were born no longer exists, and beyond finding ways to take direct action, I think we also need to be thinking hard about what human life on Earth looks like, and how it will have to change. Food production is one obvious area of focus, but so is basic habitation. Science fiction as a field has spent decades imagining how humanity might survive on a variety of alien planets. Temperature extremes, toxic atmospheres, hostile wildlife – a lot of it involves putting ourselves in a situation where, despite all of our advanced technology, we’re required to once again struggle for survival against a lethal and indifferent world. Keeping homes cool is already shifting from a matter of comfort to one of survival, and that change is likely to accelerate. Higher temperatures are going to mean more dangerous air pollution, even without things like increasing wildfires or even crematorium smoke as new diseases cause mass death.

I’ve believed for about a decade now that the planet is almost certainly going to keep warming for the rest of my life, even if I manage to have a very long life.

That melting ice released CO2 into the atmosphere. The thawing permafrost is doing the same. The tiny amount of warming we’ve already seen has been enough to cause measurable changes across the entire surface of this planet, and many of those changes are going to make the warming speed up, or at least continue even if humanity stops adding to the problem.

So, we need changes, not just to how we interact with our atmosphere, but also to how we conduct our lives day to day. The floating neighborhoods of The Netherlands are a good example of this – they know sea level rise is going to be an escalating problem, especially with so much of their population already living below sea level. They could have just responded by building up their dikes, or moving people to higher ground, and while those options are definitely still on the table, having residential areas designed to simply float up as the water rises is one way to literally stay on top of the problem.

This is one of the reasons I keep leaning on local organizing as a catch-all starting point for dealing with climate change and political problems (insofar as the two can be said to be separate). The lifestyle changes needed for the Netherlands will be useless in most of California. The changes needed for California won’t help people in Alaska. The changes needed in Alaska won’t help people in Vietnam. What changes are coming to where you live? Should you be thinking about how to deal with killer heat waves as a community, or is air pollution a more pressing issue? Has there been an increasing problem with flooding from the ocean? If so, should you be focusing on how to keep your homes dry, or on how to ensure that there’s safe food and water available when the flooding happens?

At best, we can be sure that the worst-case scenarios are still a very real possibility, and that means that regional differences – and regional organizing – are going to matter a whole lot more going forward.


This blog is currently my only source of income. If you’d like to support the work I do, feed my dog, or help offset the costs of our upcoming move, please head over to patreon.com/oceanoxia, and join the Oceanoxia collective. My patrons have kept my household fed and housed during this crazy year, and while I’ll continue looking for wage labor, I really like writing for you all, and would love to be able to continue dedicating most of my time to that endeavor. If you have the means and the desire to do so, please give according to your ability, that I might survive, according to my needs!

Video: History of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels

Thanks to SteveoR for showing this to me!

The video shows a graph of the rise of atmospheric CO2 levels over the second half of the 20th century, into the 21st. Then it starts to “zoom out”, showing falling levels, back into the last ice age, rising before it, falling again for another ice age, and so on back to eight hundred thousand years BCE. As longer periods of time become visible on the graph, the timeline compresses, showing the last 50 years or so for the very short time that they represent. Well before the end of the video, it is clear that CO2 levels are far, far higher now than they have been at any point in the last 800,000 years, and beyond.