Mid-Valley Residents Pitching in for Science

Participants in Oregon Season Tracker track plant development. Their observations are reported to the National Phenology Network
Participants in Oregon Season Tracker track plant development. Their observations are reported to the National Phenology Network
The team of Benton Co MGs rated (and tasted) over 100 cultivars of tomatoes and over 90 cultivars of sweet & hot peppers.
The team of Benton Co MGs rated (and tasted) over 100 cultivars of tomatoes and over 90 cultivars of sweet & hot peppers.

By Mitch Lies, GROWING Editor

Each morning, rain or shine, dozens of mid-Willamette Valley residents venture outside their homes to check a rain gauge for precipitation. Using smart phones or computers, they then post the readings on a national database.

Once a week or so, many of those same residents measure native plant development and post those findings on a separate national database.

The citizen scientists, as they are called, are participating in Oregon Season Tracker, an Oregon State University Extension program that is part of a national network of volunteers who are adding to scientific databases and gaining perspective of occurrences in their own backyards.

Oregon Season Tracker started in Benton County in 2014 in partnership with researchers at the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest, which is located near Blue River, Oregon. It has expanded until today 16 Oregon counties are represented and three more are coming on line this fall. In the program, directors recruit, train and support local volunteers who contribute to a national phenology network called Nature’s Notebook, and the Community Collaborative Rain Hail and Snow Network, or CoCoRaHS.

“Our goal is to get Oregon Season Tracker throughout Oregon,” said Jody Einerson, an educational program assistant for OSU Extension in Benton County, who serves as statewide coordinator of the Season Tracker program.

Citizen science is nothing new, Einerson said, noting that it dates back to the turn of the 20th Century when the Audubon Society used data collected by citizens in what is known as the first Christmas Bird Count. But it is growing in popularity.

CoCoRaHS, the national precipitation database, dates to 1998 when a Colorado State University scientist formed a volunteer reporting network in response to his failure to notice the encroachment of what turned out to be a devastating storm.

“There were not enough rain stations out there to gather the data, so he took this out to citizens,” Einerson said.

CoCoRaHS has become more refined over the years, until today volunteers in programs such as Oregon Season Tracker post data under a designed set of protocols that enable scientists in many organizations, such as the National Weather Service, to use the data.

To date, Einerson said, 242 people have completed the Oregon Season Tracker training. Participants are asked to post precipitation reports daily. Plant phenology reports are posted once a week, except during winter months, when plants are largely dormant. Commitment for volunteers is minimal, Einerson said, involving less than five minutes a day for the precipitation reports and 15 minutes a week for plant observations.

The program accommodates lapses in reporting, Einerson said, allowing participants to post multi-day reports if necessary. “If they are gone for vacation, they just report the total when they get back,” she said. “We don’t expect that they report every day, but we ask them to try to do it as often as possible.”

In the plant phenology program, citizen scientists flag, or identify, one or two native species and track the plants’ developments over time. Their observations are reported through the National Phenology Network, Nature’s Notebook, which was established in 2007.

The programs benefit both the scientific community and the individual participants, said Brad Withrow-Robinson, forestry and natural resources Extension agent for Benton, Linn and Polk counties. “A lot of us think of ourselves as fairly tuned in on the seasons,” he said, “but when you are actually going out and paying very close attention to the plant stages, it is surprising how much more you notice.

“I was surprised at how early a couple of plants came out,” Withrow-Robinson said. “I kind of knew they were early, but when I actually find out how early, I was shocked. I think a lot of our volunteers are enjoying discovering things like that.”

“I find that in talking to people that one of the key things they like about the program is being involved in helping science,” Einerson said, “and they are enjoying getting a better understanding of what is happening in their yards, gardens and woodlands.”

Data collected through the citizen science programs is available for anyone to see, Einerson said, and precipitation data posted by 9 a.m. shows up that same day on an online map that can be accessed through the network’s website, CoCoRaHS.org. “It is really powerful in that just like the researchers, you can see what is happening,” Einerson said.

One of the ideas behind starting Oregon Season Tracker was to push people to become more aware of their environment and how climate affects that, Einerson said. “The idea was that by getting people involved in watching weather and watching plant reactions that would create a greater awareness of what is going on around them, and how what happens with one affects the other,” she said.

“It is also getting people involved in science, helping them understand that science is something that we all use, and that you can be comfortable with it,” she said. “The (identification and reporting) protocols are easy enough that you don’t have to have a science degree to do this. And they are contributing to the greater bank of knowledge out there. Researchers can’t be everywhere. Volunteers can cover a lot of places that researchers can’t be, and their data can be really important. It is a way to be contributing to the bank of science knowledge, and people like that.”

Several Citizen Science Projects Open to Volunteers

In projects available through Oregon State University, citizen scientists are helping researchers accumulate data on native bee populations, on vegetable variety characteristics for breeding purposes, as well as on precipitation and plant phenology through Oregon Season Tracker.

“There are a lot of different ways people can engage in citizen science,” said Brooke Edmunds, Community Horticulture Extension agent for Linn, Benton and Lane counties. “There are the national projects, and there are the more home-grown projects, where we are trying to engage folks with individual research projects.”

The data collected by citizen volunteers often provides vital information for research, Edmunds said. “In the (vegetable) variety evaluations, for example, if the citizen science volunteers weren’t collecting data, it may not get collected. They are definitely providing invaluable assistance to go out and walk and evaluate all of these varieties. And all of that is going to be turned into something that is going to be published and publicly available, which will be a great resource for gardeners in the state.”

For more information on Citizen Science (In the Garden!), go to http://blogs.oregonstate.edu/gardencitizenscience/ or contact Edmunds at brooke.edmunds@oregonstate.edu.

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