A View from the Hill: Be a citizen scientist

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For the last three decades or so, my brothers and I have been piling into a boat on a lake in New Hampshire every year on the last days of fishing season to drag variously adorned hooks around for hours in search of landlocked salmon.

As the photographer in the bunch, that means I have about 30 years of images that when looked at consecutively can tell me how things have changed on the lake.

Andrew MarstersThe first few years when we went out at the end of September we were fully dressed in winter gear, the leaves were starting to fall with the help of a wind that always howled, and the salmon would pretty near jump into the boat of their own accord.

This year when we were out at the end of September, we remarked how warm the air was, how green the mountains surrounding the lake still were, how warm the water was, and how few salmon we caught in relation to our much earlier expeditions.

In other words, things have changed markedly on the lake and late September weather is now what mid-September weather was 30 years ago. Some of this data is anecdotal but could be easily confirmed by checking weather bureau historical data, actual water temperature data, and fish landing records kept by the fisheries people.

But the photos I took on those days represent my own hard data. I can look at them and see where erosion has eaten away the shoreline. I can see the color of the leaves on the trees. I can see whether there was snow on any of the mountaintops. My photos document change.

And that makes me a citizen scientist. If you’ve visited and photographed the same corner of the Earth year after year, your garden or backyard, for example, you can look at them and note the changes, the way we look at photographs of our kids over the years and note the changes.

That makes you too a citizen scientist. 

In fact, anyone can become a citizen scientist. And you don’t need a lab coat or special education – just a smartphone or conventional camera, an internet connection, and a means to get somewhere.

Organizations around the world are taking advantage of the fact that thousands of us now carry very high-quality cameras with us at all times (our phones) to document everything from bird migration to whale movements, shark sightings, coral reef bleaching, and bumblebee distribution.

Carefully curated and studied by scientists, these citizen efforts can yield a wealth of information about what is going on in our world.

Including right here in Casco Bay.

When Linda Stimpson saw a horseshoe crab scuttling along the sand in Freeport last July, she was surprised because she had never seen one in Maine. So she took out her phone, opened an app called Water Reporter, entered some information, took a photo and hit send. 

The photo went into the Water Reporter collection, where it could be accessed and analyzed by staff at Friends of Casco Bay, a science-based organization (where I am president of the volunteer board of directors) that monitors the health of the Bay in a number of ways, including Water Reporter.

Stimpson’s photo became a permanent piece of data that may sometime become an important metric for researchers. Water Reporter groups around the country are collecting data the same way, creating a vast historic record of change.

According to Sarah Lyman, community engagement coordinator at Friends, there are currently 297 Water Reporters, called Followers on the app, in Casco Bay. Since Friends launched Water Reporter in 2018, volunteers have posted nearly 2,300 photographs documenting sea level rise, habitat destruction, wildlife, harmful algae growth, and much more. Those photos have become an essential tool for monitoring the health of the bay. 

Recently, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute launched a similar citizen science photo effort with its Coastal Flooding Citizen Science Project. Friends of Casco Bay and GMRI “are working together to enhance our coastal communities’ participation in responding to rising seas,” according to a joint statement.

When I took all those photos at the lake over those many years, I had no idea I was being a citizen scientist for a few days each year. Now, like so many others, I can be a citizen scientist year-round in Casco Bay.

Yes, they are just pictures. But taken together, they tell an important story about where we have been, and where we may be going.

Andrew Marsters is an award-winning Maine journalist and former journalism instructor at the University of New Hampshire. He lives on Munjoy Hill.