- [Ward] Coming up on "Great Lakes Now," citizen science.
The night sky can be mesmerizing, but for many of us, the stars are disappearing.
- The only stars that you can possibly see are the very brightest ones.
- [Greg] Citizen scientists are helping to chart the changes.
Counting up insect larva to measure the health of our waterways.
- A lot of people that really care about the river and wanna do whatever they can.
- [Ward] And science projects around the Great Lakes.
(light music) - [Announcer] This program is brought to you by the Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation, the Charles Stewart MOTT Foundation.
The Consumers Energy Foundation is committed to serving Michigan, from preserving our state's natural resources and sustaining our future, to continuing business growth, academic achievement, and community involvement.
Learn more at ConsumersEnergy.com/foundation.
The Richard C. Devereaux Foundation for Energy and Environmental Programs at DPTV, the Polk Family Fund, and viewers like you.
- Hi, I'm Ward Detwiler.
Welcome to "Great Lakes Now."
As I stand here in the snow, April is only a few days away, and April is Citizen Science Month.
So for this episode, "Great Lakes Now" is partnering with Sci Starter to bring you stories about citizen science projects.
Up first, a global effort to map and track how the night sky is changing.
(bouncy music) About 40 miles west of Kenosha, Wisconsin, on the shores of Geneva Lake, sits the Yerkes Observatory.
Built in 1897 and once operated by the University of Chicago, the observatory is legendary in the world of astronomy.
- So this is the last of a great style and it remains the largest refracting telescope in the world.
- [Ward] That's Walt Chadick, Director of Programs and External Affairs at the Yerkes Observatory.
The massive 63-foot telescope, weighing 160,000 pounds is supported by an enormous chunk of concrete.
The huge wooden floor of the observatory dome is really an elevator that goes up and down so astronomers can access the viewfinder.
- And I never get tired of watching people walk up that grand staircase and walk in this magnificent dome, look up at the great refractor and just be riddled with goosebumps.
(bouncy music) - [Ward] But why did the University of Chicago build this huge observatory about 100 miles north of campus?
It's because even in the late 1800s, light pollution was already becoming a problem for astronomers.
- This is the burgeoning city light culture in Chicago, you know, Edison was bringing city lights, so seeing, as astronomers call it, was getting increasingly more difficult in Chicago.
(bouncy music) - [Ward] In 1893, the World's Columbian Exposition opened in Chicago.
It was kind of a coming out party for electric power and gave visitors a glimpse of the bright lights that would come to define modern cities.
Of course, over the last century or so, we've installed a lot of electric lights.
It isn't surprising that we put our most powerful, sophisticated telescopes above the globe in outer space.
To see the night sky the way our great-great grandparents would've seen it, you have to get pretty remote.
- I was canoeing in the Quetico Provincial Park, which are the boundary waters just above Minnesota, and we're out there on the 4th of July and we had our own personal fireworks in the night sky.
It was an amazing white curtain of flickering lights.
Yeah, that was the Northern Lights.
- [Ward] That's Connie Walker, an astronomer, recalling her first experience with the Northern Lights.
She says it was inspiring.
Today, Walker is a scientist at the National Science Foundation's NOIR Lab.
- NOIR Lab stands for National Optical Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory, a long title.
(bouncy music) - [Greg] NOIR Lab operates three state-of-the-art ground-based observatories in Hawaii, Chile, and here in Arizona, just south of Tucson.
One thing they study, the increasing difficulty of seeing the stars from the Earth's surface.
In some places, it's nearly impossible.
- If you go to like, New York City, you will only see a handful of stars because of this glow that's like washing out the night sky so the only stars that you can possibly see are the very brightest ones.
- [Greg] To track light pollution, NOIR lab relies on a worldwide network of citizen scientists through a project Walker runs called Globe at Night.
- We asked them to go outside at night and they bring up the app on their telephone and they get their eyes adjusted to the dark, and what you're looking for are the faintest stars you can possibly see, because that is basically your litmus test.
That shows you how faint you can possibly see in terms of a star's brightness.
And by doing that, you're measuring your light pollution level and in less than a minute, you can click that submit button and you're done.
And this is the constellation we want you to look at, which is Orion, for this month.
And down the East Coast there you see a lot of the contributions, so the brighter the dot, the brighter the sky, the darker the dot, the darker the sky.
- [Greg King] More than a quarter million people are sending in data on a regular basis.
Nearly 2,000 miles away from Tucson, near Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, just a stone's throw from where Yerkes built his observatory, a small gathering of high school students are using more than their smart phones to help gather data for Globe at Night.
They're building sensors to measure night time light levels.
- We're actually putting in holes here, so that we can put standoffs in.
- [Greg] Kate Meredith is the President and Director of GLAS, which is short for Geneva Lake Astro-Physics and Steam.
- The idea is eventually to surround the lake, have at least 20 of these deployed at equidistance around the lake so that we can get an idea about the impacts on our night sky from various sources.
- So we're gonna take the sensor and we're gonna walk beside the house here.
In a second, we'll figure out who wants to do what... - [Greg] Students install the weatherproof devices outside the homes of property owners who have agreed to take part in the project.
- [Kate] These sensors are connected to the WiFi at each one of the properties and at 1:00 in the morning this data gets uploaded to a Google site, and then we're gonna be able to take those data and make graphs out of them, even make sonifications out of them, show the data on a Google Map.
- [Greg] The information collected will also be fed into the data bank at the NOIR Lab in Tucson.
The goal is to advance science and raise community awareness about the problem of light pollution.
Meredith says it does more than obscure the stars.
- We rely on darkness to trigger melatonin production and we're just beginning to know all the effects that a good melatonin production and good night's sleep has on human health.
- [Greg] So adding it all up, what does all this data from around the world point to?
- [Kate] With their data, they saw that there were fewer and fewer stars they could see on average from their location from year to year to year.
It translates into about almost a 10% brightening every single year.
So each year, the sky's getting 10% brighter on average around the world, and that's what we think is a very alarming rate.
- [Greg] Based on the data gathered through Globe at Night, NOIR Lab recently reported that due to growing light pollution, about 30% of people around the world and around 80% of people in the US cannot look up at night and see our home galaxy, the Milky Way.
- There's a beauty to it that is unparalleled, and once you see it, you'll totally understand and it'll be something you never forget.
But there is a piece of ourselves that we are actually losing if we lose the night sky.
It's a source of inspiration for our younger generation.
- For more about this project and our changing night sky, visit GreatLakesNow.org.
Not long ago, I joined a group of citizen scientists in Ypsilanti, Michigan, where they were counting up bug larva to learn about the health of the Rouge River, once one of the most polluted waterways in the Great Lakes.
The Rouge River winds through some of the most heavily populated and industrialized areas of southeast Michigan.
During the first half of the 20th century, factories, refineries, and other industrial facilities lined the river's banks.
Most famously, Ford's massive River Rouge Complex, which was the largest integrated factory in the world when it was completed in 1928.
The Rouge River became so polluted that in 1969 it caught fire, just like the Cuyahoga in nearby Cleveland and others.
It was a bad time for wildlife looking to call the Rouge River home.
The industry is still there, but 50 years of environmental regulations, remediation, and restoration efforts have made conditions a lot better, and aquatic life is slowly returning to some parts of the waterway.
(upbeat music) The conservation group, Friends of the Rouge, has helped push these changes along.
Monitoring Manager Sally Petrella says getting people to help is easy.
- We have a lot of people that really care about the river and wanna do whatever they can to to help out the river.
- [Ward] Today, small teams of citizen scientists are gathering at 29 locations across the Rouge's watershed to collect data about stoneflies.
I'm joining this group at Superior Center Park, located near the source of the river.
So far upstream from the industrial stretch of the river that where we're standing has a different name.
So here we are in Fowler Creek.
- [Sally Petrella] So this is a headwater stream.
- [Ward] What does that mean exactly?
- So it's up at the very top of where the Rouge River starts.
So just right upstream you have a wetland and not too much else.
And then the river flows down, eventually connects up with the lower branch, and eventually makes its way all the way down past Zug Island and to the Detroit River.
- [Ward] I think a lot of people, when they think about the Rouge, they think of the rouge plant.
This is quite a bit different up here.
How does this section kind of relate to what's happening downstream?
- A lot of people wouldn't even think that this is part of the Rouge, it's so far upstream.
It's a headwater stream and it has some of the life that will eventually, as the river becomes cleaner, will then recolonize it.
The headwaters are really important parts of a watershed because that's where you have a lot of small streams and wetlands that filter and clean the water.
So it's really critical.
- [Ward] While this area of the river is healthier than the more industrial parts, according to Petrella, it's not perfect.
- One of the biggest problems in the Rouge is all the the stormwater pollution and the fact that we've paved over so much of the watershed that water's no longer infiltrating.
And so the Rouge River is a really flashy river, so when it rains a little bit, it goes way, way up, and then way, way down, and that causes a lot of erosion, makes it really difficult for stoneflies and other aquatic life to exist.
- [Ward] In fact, counting up stonefly larva is one way to measure the health of the river, and how well it supports wildlife.
- So all stoneflies are very sensitive.
That entire order of insects is very, very sensitive.
They have really high needs for dissolved oxygen and they need to get their oxygen from the water.
And so they need fast moving, cold, clean water.
If the water gets too warm, if it gets too polluted, you're gonna rob the oxygen out of it and they're not gonna be able to survive.
- [Ward] Why do you do this in the winter?
- We do this in the winter because that's when the stoneflies are active.
They're a very unique insect in that they hatch out of the streams in the dead of winter.
- And like a lot of insects, stoneflies begin life as larva.
Petrella and her team of citizen scientists have a few tricks for finding them.
So what do we do here?
- Our job is to go in there and collect samples, try to find them, and you have to use a lot of different techniques.
I'll show you first one of our main techniques, we call it the riffle dance.
So get in the river, and you're gonna put your net downstream of you, and then you want to step upstream of the net and then you wanna dig your toes in and just try to stir up the bugs and the critters, 'cause a lot of these stoneflies walk around on the stones and you wanna disturb 'em from the stones.
And you can see as I'm doing that, the water's kind of flowing down into the net, catching the stoneflies.
So do you wanna try that?
- Let's see you try to do some samples.
- Where do I start?
- Kinda come in right here to be in this little- - Yeah, yeah, that looks pretty good.
- Little pinch point.
- Then just sorta...
I must need to get better at the riffle dance, because my net ended up full of muck and rocks.
- There you go.
- Not ideal.
Okay, now to see if I got anything.
I don't know what I've come up with.
- [Sally] If you wanna rinse your sample, we could put it up there on a tray if you wanna do that.
- [Ward] Yeah, let's do that.
- [Sally] Yeah, if you get too much muck and then your volunteers will be really mad at you, they won't be able to find anything.
- [Ward] Fortunately, all is not lost, even with a beginner like me working the net.
- [Sally] I see you've got that big old rock there, too.
Maybe we'll get lucky with something on the rock.
Okay, that looks pretty good.
- [Ward] Okay, now what?
- [Sally] Let's head on up.
- The next step in the process takes place on land.
Stonefly larva are pretty small.
Some are just about a half an inch long, or about 13 millimeters.
So volunteers have to sift through each sample using tweezers.
Nature loving citizen scientists, like Scott Swiecki and his daughter Sofia, happily help with this dirty work.
This is their 10th stonefly survey.
Have you guys seen any changes over those years as citizen scientists surveying the river?
Ups and downs?
- Ups and downs for sure.
Sometimes we have a day like today where we get started and immediately are finding tons of results.
Other times, we might go to the same location more than once and have very different results.
And it's always interesting to hear from Sally and the other folks, the team leaders, what that might mean, what those trends can represent.
- [Ward] What keeps you coming back?
- [Scott] We wanna do our part to take care of the environment that we live in, it's educational for her, we feel a part of a community, it's a great group of people.
- I'm glad you guys are coming out here and doing this, thank you.
According to Petrella, the work of these citizen scientists informs the work of local governments and other organizations.
- When we find areas that are poor quality for benthic macro invertebrates, that can lead to a restoration project being specifically designed for that area.
So there's that, and then the state also uses the data to help determine, you know, the health of the river and whether it is still impaired for certain designated uses and whether it needs more work for restoration.
So it definitely has an impact.
- [Ward] To help maintain and further improve the health of the Rouge, Petrella urges residents and lawmakers to think critically about the current rate of development in the Rouge's watershed.
- In this region, we're developing the land eight times faster than the population grows.
That's very detrimental to the river to develop all that.
We need to preserve more land out here to help keep our water quality, to help preserve our river.
- For more about the health of our region's waterways, visit GreatLakesNow.org.
And now it's time for The Catch.
Normally, The Catch takes you around the Great Lakes to hear from reporters about issues they're covering.
But this month, we're sticking with our theme and letting you know about citizen science projects around the region.
We start with our partner on this episode, Sci Starter.
- [Anna] Sci Starter creates a framework for citizen science to take place, and for the collected data to be used by members of the scientific community.
The organization's founder, Darlene Cavalier, says there are a lot of opportunities for people to get involved.
- It's important to note that citizen science is as broad as science is.
So basically from, we say, astronomy to zoology, that's the range of projects that are in Sci Starter.
And some of my favorites, or ones that really relate, and I think your audience will be excited about, are Stream Selfie, iNaturalist, and a mosquito habitat mapper.
- [Anna] Most of our drinking water comes through streams, so it's important for scientists to keep track of the health of those bodies of water.
Darlene says Stream Selfie is a simple and fun way for people to get involved in building a national map of streams.
- Take a selfie of yourself or your dog, you'll see some interesting creative ways that people are participating in this, as long as the stream is in the picture.
And that automatically gets information from your cell phone that maps that location so you don't have to do much more than that, except answer a couple of additional questions that tell scientists and others about the health of that water.
- [Anna] iNaturalist is another project that involves taking pictures of the natural world and sharing those photos with scientists and other naturalists.
iNaturalist's software and online community can help you identify what plant and animal life you're looking at.
- The most important thing about iNaturalist to remember is you don't have to know what you're doing.
Upload images, you can take a guess, the crowd will help make sure that your image is identified as the right species.
But also, thousands of scientists use the data from iNaturalist.
And this is all about monitoring biodiversity.
Looking for population changes in plants and animals is extremely important.
- [Anna] And then there's a project for mapping mosquito habitats, which helps support data from satellites and computer models about the outbreak and spread of diseases.
- So the mosquito mapper is a way to sort of identify potential or real habitats where mosquito larvae are, and this is important because these breed diseases.
You don't wanna kill all the mosquitoes that you see because they're actually important food sources for other insects, but some will produce Zika, for example.
- [Anna] These three projects are all Sci Starter affiliates, which means you can track your participation across these and other citizen science projects that Sci Starter supports.
Darlene says affiliate projects also offer additional ways to get involved.
- Check your local library or you can look at SciStarter.org/library-locations and you can find libraries that offer kits for these projects.
You don't need instruments, other than the apps that I mentioned, or special tools, but they do provide everything that you need to make your experience a wonderful one, and to help make sure that your data is credible so scientists can use it.
- [Anna] Chicago's Shedd Aquarium is getting in on citizen science with a series of conservation action days.
Krystina Meyer is Coordinator of Conservation Action at the aquarium.
She says the program allows people to help improve animal habitats in their own backyards, at the beach, or in nearby wooded areas.
- We help create opportunities for action in those spaces to directly impact the animals at their homes.
- [Anna] Krystina says the locations for the program change depending on the season and need.
Lately the team has been focused on woodland habitat restoration.
- There is an invasive tree called European buckthorn.
As you can tell by the name, it is not native here in the US, but it has started to take over our native landscape.
- [Anna] In partnership with the Forest Preserves of Cook County, volunteers use hand tools to cut and burn the invasive brush to help make room for native flora and fauna.
- [Krystina] We teach folks how to identify European buckthorn and how to safely test their lumberjack skills and chop it down with us.
- [Anna] And then during the summer months, Shedd's amphibian researcher, Dr. Melissa Youngquist, heads back out to the areas where volunteers have been doing the restoration work to track how the efforts are impacting local amphibian populations.
- And so we meet folks at all levels and then provide them with opportunities to take action for where they're at.
- Krystina says the work of citizen scientists helps with data collection and also gives participants a better understanding of where they live.
- That data then gets sent to scientists who help use that data to impact policy or future research and support for species throughout the Chicagoland and Great Lakes region.
So those impacts are long lasting, past that one day that individual comes out to take action.
- [Anna] On Charity Island in Michigan's Saginaw Bay, elementary school students are gearing up to participate in a long-term scientific study focused on an endangered plant species.
In her latest monthly column called "Science Says What," "Great Lakes Now" contributor Sharon Oosthoek has the story.
- These students are taking part in a study of restoration efforts for the threatened Pitcher's Thistle on Charity Island, that's in Saginaw Bay.
And every spring since 2015, scientists have visited a grade five class from Au Gres-Sims school in northeast Michigan.
And these scientists train the students on how to recognize Pitcher's Thistle at various stages of life, and also how to use a GPS unit to map their location.
- [Anna] In addition to GPS units, the students are also provided with data entry sheets and they traverse along the fragile landscape of Charity Island looking for the Pitcher's Thistle to collect seeds and document the health of the plant.
- [Sharon] They plot the thistle's location and also the location of invasive phragmites, which threaten the thistles.
- [Anna] The study's findings have indicated that spraying has substantially decreased the island's phragmites population, leaving more room for the Pitcher's Thistle, whose numbers have increased slightly.
Sharon says the effort shows the role even young students can play in citizen science initiatives.
- Students can be a really important part of data collection and research if their trained properly, and it's not that hard really to train 'em properly.
And in this case, their findings are being used to assess how well the restoration efforts are working.
And it's a mixed bag, but it's important to know, and these students are uncovering that.
- [Anna] As Sharon's column, "Science Says What?"
evolves, she hopes to translate scientific findings about the Great Lakes into accessible information for the general public.
- With this column, I was thinking a lot about how science can be kind of inaccessible for folks sometimes.
You know, the jargon, things like statistical significance, P values, I mean what does that mean to the average person?
And my goal is to try and translate that into plain English so that people not only understand, but care about the Great Lakes, 'cause you can't protect what you don't know about and it makes a difference when you understand what's going on.
- Thanks for watching.
For more on these stories and the Great Lakes in general, visit GreatLakesNow.org.
When you get there, you can follow us on social media or subscribe to our newsletter to get updates about our work.
See you out on the lakes.
(light music) (light music continues) - [Announcer] This program is brought to you by the Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation, the Charles Stewart MOTT Foundation.
The Consumer's Energy Foundation is committed to serving Michigan, from preserving our state's natural resources and sustaining our future, to continuing business growth, academic achievement, and community involvement.
Learn more at ConsumersEnergy.com/foundation.
The Richard C. Devereaux Foundation for Energy and Environmental Programs at DPTV, the Polk Family Fund, and viewers like you.