Candi Walmsley’s face lights up when she talks about storms. She has a Davis weather station at her Walla Walla home, and she is passionate about collecting and reporting on precipitation.
“I am very much a weather geek,” she said, beaming widely during a recent interview.
But the administrative supervisor at Children’s Home Society and mother of one high school-aged daughter didn’t know until just a few months ago that her pastime makes her a citizen scientist.
Walmsley’s epiphany came in March when she attended a local event where Elizabeth MacDonald, a 1995 Walla Walla High School graduate now a space physicist for NASA, spoke about the power of citizen science.
MacDonald leads a project called Aurorasaurus that collects observations of the Northern Lights from amateur sky gazers all over the world.
“Aurorasaurus is definitely a way that Walla Wallans can contribute to science,” MacDonald said in an email interview this spring.
Among other contributions, data from this site led to the discovery of a new type of aurora called STEVE (much shorter and easier to say than Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement).
Walmsley was astonished and inspired by MacDonald’s presentation and her revelations about citizen science, what it is, and why it’s important.
“I didn’t realize that what I do at home is part of that,” she said.
What Walmsley does is record the daily weather on Figueroa Street (the summers are definitely getting hotter, and it gets hotter earlier, she says). She types her findings into an online, crowdsourcing database with hundreds of other “weather bugs” in the United States, Canada, Puerto Rico, the U.S Virgin Islands and the Bahamas.
Walmsley is station number WA-WW-14 on CoCoRaHS, short for Community Collaborative Rain, Hail & Snow Network.
And she is just one among many citizen scientists in the Walla Walla Valley.
Nannette Goyer, for instance, is crazy about insects. A dentist at Inland Family Dentistry on South Second Avenue, Goyer’s first love was always entomology. Now she fills her spare time with forays into the world of bees, bugs, moths, butterflies and “all the little crawling things,” she said.
“I used to send money to all these nonprofit organizations that study insects and track what’s happening with them, and I still do that, but now I feel like I can contribute data to real projects,” she said.
Goyer discovered citizen science several years ago. She quickly found a number of local, regional and national projects she could help with, and she dove in head first.
She participated in training (“really cool,” she said) and now helps with a regional project called the Pacific Northwest Bumble Bee Atlas, which is a collaborative effort between many different agencies to track and conserve the bumble bees of Oregon, Washington and Idaho.
Another community science project she is part of is called Monitoring Dragonfly Migration in North America, which collects reports from volunteers on the fall and spring movement of dragonflies, with emphasis on the five main migratory species in North America.
“Participants monitor the timing, duration, and direction of travel of migrating dragonflies, and note any additional behaviors observed in a directed migratory flight such as feeding or mating,” according to the project website maintained by the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.
“What’s fun is that with all these projects, I can do them simultaneously,” Goyer said. “If I happen to be in the middle of Bumble Bee Atlas data collecting and a (globally invasive) white cabbage butterfly goes by (Goyer is monitoring these through another project), I can put one down and go collect the other, then get back to what I was doing originally.”
In addition to being a fun hobby and a way to donate spare time to science — Goyer is planning a vacation to Southeastern Oregon and Nevada this year specifically to collect possibly unusual white cabbage butterflies requested by a lead scientist with that project — citizen science is vital to scientists and land managers.
“Having more people involved in citizen science is fantastic for a number of reasons,” said Stephanie Kuhns, an environmental specialist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“It means that more people are becoming scientifically literate, more people are exploring new ideas and new places, people are learning new things, and scientific discovery can happen at a greater scale,” she said.
Amateur contributions to science are not new, wrote Caren Cooper, an associate professor at North Carolina State University in her 2016 book “Citizen Science: How Ordinary People Are Changing the Face of Discovery.”
“Science as an occupation is a fairly new concept,” Cooper wrote. “The roots of science have always been in leisure time, spare time, or spiritual time.”
Among famous hobbyist scientists with no science degrees were Benjamin Franklin, Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau and Thomas Edison.
Today’s boom in amateur science is thanks, in part, to smartphones, according to Kuhns, with Fish and Wildlife.
“Fifteen years ago, we didn’t have smartphones,” she said. “Now almost everyone has a tiny computer in their back pocket that gives them access to practically the entire world. If we turn that technology to science, using apps like eBird or iNaturalist, we can gain so much new knowledge and contribute to the greater body of scientific knowledge.”
Kuhns, who has been involved in a number of such projects both as a participant and as an organizer, said data from such wide-spread efforts by a collective body of interested citizens can even be used to inform management decision, such as whether to allow recreation in certain areas where protected bird species have been known to nest.
Community efforts to further scientific work “simultaneously creates two interlocking keys needed to solve our big problems: (1) reliable knowledge of what can be done, and (2) social capital to make it happen,” according to Cooper’s book.
Such social capital, or the value derived from social networks that allow individuals to achieve things they couldn’t on their own, mean a great deal to researchers such as Rich Hatfield, a senior conservation biologist in Portland with the Bumble Bee Atlas project.
“The value of citizen science is many fold,” Hatfield said. “The first, base-level benefit is education. We are reaching a whole new group of people and teaching them about why animals are important and what they can do to help.”
And of “tremendous help,” he said, is the hands-on data collection that is happening thanks to citizen scientists.
“We’re able to have a level of reach we wouldn’t have otherwise. It is so cost effective,” he said. “To take a team myself to the tri-state areas under study with the Bumble Bee Atlas project, for example, would take years.”
But community members who help with the project — which started last year and is funded through 2020 — are trained by his team, he said, and he verifies the data (which he says is “high-quality”).
Already he’s seeing a lot of interesting things going on with bees. Habitat loss, of course, is one of the basic problems, with more and more habitat and prairies being converted to farms, fields and housing projects, he said.
In addition, he’s seeing an increased use of highly toxic insecticides both in farm fields and urban/suburban areas. Climate change is shortening the seasons, making it hard for bees to reproduce.
And disease transfer is becoming common, Hatfield said. Not only between honey bees but also with commercial bumble bees.
“Our goal for the Atlas project is to take the habitat-associated learning and provide land-management guidance to Fish and Wildlife and the Bureau of Land Management and teach them how to better manage lands throughout the west for pollinators,” he said.
Participation in the Bumble Bee Atlas projects has been “fantastic,” Hatfield said. Over 500 volunteers have signed up.
“The hardest part is trying to keep up with all the inquiries and interest,” he said. “Which is a good problem to have.”