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Apr. 21, 2011

An Oily Year for Citizen Scientists on the Gulf Coast

by Lisa Gardiner

Click to enlarge images

The Gulf's wildlife affected by the oil spill. (Photo: NOAA)

When the explosion happened at the Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, 2010, we didn’t know exactly how much oil would eventually leak into the ocean and that, a year after the spill, there are still so many questions about how to restore the region. While there are many different perspectives on the effects of the spill to Gulf Coast residents, the marine ecosystem, and coastal wildlife, it is clear that it is going to take a long time for the area to recover fully.

What’s especially ironic is that this oil spill happened a couple of days before Earth Day, that day of the year intended to highlight environmental concerns. Born out of the 1960s environmental movement, Earth Day (April 22) gained nationwide traction in the wake of another massive oil spill, one off the coast of Santa Barbara, California in 1969.

At the time, people thought that oil spill was massive. Last year’s oil gives us a new perspective on the size. The Santa Barbara oil spill was 200,000 gallons of crude oil while the 2010 spill in the Gulf of Mexico was over 190,000,000 gallons.

After last year’s spill in the Gulf, I read several accounts of how people from diverse backgrounds volunteered to help rescue birds and other wildlife after the Santa Barbara oil spill. These stories made me feel a bit hopeful. For example, nature writer John McKinney wrote the following about a trip to Santa Barbara:

"I had been impressed by the way energetic college students, shopkeepers, surfers, parents with their kids, all joined the beach clean-up. I saw a Montecito society matron transporting oily birds in her Mercedes."

It’s a good reminder that while there is a lot to make us feel blue about the situation in the Gulf, there are also thousands of people who are making a positive difference, people who, over the past year, have volunteered their time to help.

I’ve listed a few of the citizen science programs below that have gotten people on the Gulf Coast involved in documenting the impacts of the oil that they observe.

And, of course, there are also a whole suite of existing citizen science programs in which people report their observations of wildlife. These programs continued to gather reports from existing networks of citizen scientists after the oil began to leak. For example, More than 4000 birdwatchers with Audubon and eBird contributed almost 120 thousand observations about the health of birds in the Gulf Coast region over the past year. During the height of the oil spill, the eBird website added the ability to report oiled birds and participants filed nearly 900 bird lists with oiling information. Citizen scientists reporting observations through Project NOAH have reported on impacts of oil on Gulf Coast wildlife too. Project NOAH allows citizen scientists to upload photos and notes via iPhone and Android applications as well as through the website.

If you know of other programs that get citizen scientists involved with tracking the impacts of the oil spill, please post a comment with the information. Also if you have volunteered with any of these groups, share your experience!

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Lisa Gardiner has a background in several “ologies” – ecology, paleontology and geology. She writes and teaches about nature and environmental science, and also describes the natural world via illustrations and artwork. Lisa is the director of education at the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) where she develops educational resources that help connect people with the natural world. Currently, she is exploring the world of citizen science to help inform NEON’s journey into this exciting area. Lisa holds a Ph.D. in Geology and enjoys exploring the Earth from the tops of Colorado’s mountains to the bottom of the sea.

About Lisa Gardiner

Dr. Lisa Gardiner is a writer and content creator at Spark: Science Education at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. She likes how citizen science and social media get people involved in science and is a contributing editor at SciStarter.com.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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