In the recent weeks of the nationwide COVID-19 shut-down, many people – scientists and nonscientists alike - have turned to volunteering time to citizen science programs. These programs, which involve members of the public in scientific research, offer opportunities to play a role in a wide range of projects, ranging from classifying images of space to contributing to Alzheimer's research.
Since the issuance of stay-at-home orders, many programs have reported spikes – or even records – in participation. Zooniverse, an online platform hosting over 100 citizen science programs, experienced three times their normal activity in early April, and CoCoRaHS, a community-based precipitation monitoring program, logged the largest monthly participation in April 2020 in the program’s 20-year history.
Together with an amazing team, I run a citizen science program that engages volunteer and professional scientists in monitoring plants and animals over the course of the season. I wondered if we might similarly see a spike in participation in our program, Nature’s Notebook, coincident with the issuance of stay-at-home orders in March and April.
I was skeptical… phenology monitoring is not a one-time activity for the casual participant. Establishing the patterns of seasonal activity in plants and animals - or better yet, identifying changes in them - requires frequent (ideally, weekly or so) observations over the course of the year (ideally, over multiple years). Individuals that stick with the program for longer than a few weeks or months are rare and special people.
This pattern has always been present. The truth is, phenologists aren’t born overnight…people that are famous for monitoring phenology have become so because they’ve stuck with tracking the timing of things like budburst and flowering in the same plants year after year. For over 50 years, Wilbur Bluhm has tracked the timing of flowering, leaf out, and fall color for nearly 2000 separate taxa in western Oregon. Likewise, David Bertelsen, known for his treasure trove of flowering observations from the mountains of southern Arizona, has hiked the same 5-mile trail in the Santa Catalina Mountains on a weekly basis for over three decades, recording every species in flower every hike. These individuals’ commitments to tracking plants and animals regularly and over the long-term are very real.
The patterns in Nature’s Notebook participation in recent months were at first discouraging. In the beginning of March of 2020, more observations were contributed than in any previous year. But in mid-March, once the stay-at-home orders started to hit, the rate of incoming records started to wane, and the taper has continued through the beginning of May. By May 1, we were 2% behind 2019 in records accumulated since the start of the year, and 12% lower than where we were at by this time of the year in 2017 and 2018.
Further, sites located in public spaces such as parks, nature centers, and schools – all closed to the public during these months - experienced a steep drop-off in visits in April and May of this year.
More troubling, in April of this year, we experienced a significant drop in participating observers. The number of individuals submitting data in April 2020 dropped to 775 - nearly half the numbers in April 2019, 2018, and 2017.
These numbers at first discouraged me, then confused me. How could we have a drop of nearly 50% in our participants in April, but only see a slight dip in incoming data?
Digging deeper tells a richer – and more encouraging – story.
Since mid-March, we’ve seen a notable spike in the establishment of new monitoring sites. For the past six weeks, new sites have been registered at the most rapid rate in the program’s history. Many of our most committed volunteers had lost access to their monitoring sites. But, being the intrepid participants that they are, they turned around and kept monitoring – at new sites located on accessible lands.
Further, many of the more casual observers are bumping up their activity – there was a slight but significant increase in the average activity per observer this April. This has certainly been true for me. In January and February, I made observations on 6 and 9 days, respectively. In March, my circuits through my yard jumped to 12 days, and in April, I was out observing my flowering trees nearly every other day. For me, the act of stepping outside and focusing on intricate plant parts, even for a few moments, has been very grounding. Based on many recent Twitter posts, I think this is true for others as well.
We are certainly losing some former participants – at least for the time-being. And we are certainly missing observations at many sites that are currently inaccessible. But we are also seeing a clear shift in behavior among our dedicated participants. Many are persisting with the program, setting up new sites to continue their observing. And many others are taking their commitment to monitoring more seriously during this period.
Another encouraging discovery was that the pace of new registrants to Nature’s Notebook has not dropped off in the last several weeks. In fact, we are registering new participants at a near-record pace - dozens a day, since the stay-at-home orders began.
Citizen science programs have been promoted as a great activity for individuals during the pandemic as well as families affected by school closures. We are delighted to welcome new joiners and to provide an excuse to be outside. And with more folks discovering the program and joining up, chances are good that at least a few of them will turn out to be the truly committed, long-term observers that we ultimately seek.
The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted every corner of our lives, including citizen science program participation. The changes to participation activity in Nature’s Notebook have not all been for the worse. Rather, this period may serve to both introduce new participants to the program and galvanize some of our formerly casual participants into truly committed phenologists. And for this, I am grateful.