The next time you visit the White Mountain National Forest, you may notice more phones than usual in the woods.
No, cell service in the White Mountains didn’t magically improve. Any possible influx of photo-snapping and trail-texting is likely due to the iNaturalist app, newly integrated into AMC’s Mountain Watch program.
Mountain Watch began in 2002, when AMC’s research and education departments were first grouped under the same organizational umbrella. When members of the two teams sat down to brainstorm projects that would combine objectives of both, they landed on a form of citizen science, in which non-scientists contributes to scientific research. Georgia Murray, a staff scientist, helped lead the charge of engaging AMC scientists and other staffers, as well as AMC members, lodge and hut visitors, entire AMC chapters, and even the general public.
“We picked subjects that we felt crossed over, both from our research interest in climate change and how it might be impacting our mountains right in the backyard,” Murray says. They found a happy medium in flowers, which are both good forecasters of climate change and popular with hikers. The team called the initiative Mountain Watch.
Mountain Watch focused on phenology, or the seasonal timing of biological events—in this case, the seasonal flowering of alpine plants. After two years of data collection by summer research interns, AMC opened up Mountain Watch to the public. AMC scientists asked hikers in the White Mountain National Forest to keep an eye out for blooming alpine flowers and to track these sightings on-trail via datasheets the public then handed in to staff. Trained scientists and interns also collected data from regulated plots around AMC’s huts.
While the project met AMC’s goal of involving the public in research, the data collected by citizens wasn’t always up to AMC’s rigorous scientific standards. “We learned a lot at the beginning about citizen science and the capacity of our volunteers,” Murray says. Trained staff continued the research while AMC put the public component on hiatus for reevaluation.
Then new technology arrived. iNaturalist is a science-focused social media tool that compiles user-shared information from all over the world. A group of UC Berkeley students began the effort began as a grad-school project in 2008 and continued to develop it after their graduation. In 2017, iNaturalist became a joint initiative of the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society.
Think of it like outdoor crowdsourcing. People snap photos of whatever organisms they see outdoors: plants, animals, insects, or even traces of organisms, such as scat or tracks. Then they upload the images via the iNaturalist app, adding where and when the photos were taken, as well as the photographer’s best guess as to the organism’s species.
Once the photos are uploaded, other users can view the images and vote on how they would classify each shot. For example, if someone uploads a picture of a bear, another user can agree the organism in the image is a bear. If the second person thinks it’s an American black bear, he or she can add that information for others’ feedback. If an identification is specific enough and agreed upon by more than two-thirds of the user base who is actively sharing identifications, the observation becomes classified as “Research-Quality.”
How does all of this play into Mountain Watch? AMC now asks volunteers to download the free app and document any flowering plant they see while hiking in the White Mountain National Forest. AMC started using iNaturalist along with other institutions, such as the National Park Service and the University of Alabama, but all users, from a college’s account to a middle-school student, have full access to the entire data set. iNaturalist automatically sorts the photos based on location, time, and any additional classifications users share. Murray then pulls the data off iNaturalist and adds it to AMC’s database. From there, she’s able to input and consider additional factors relevant to her research.
“I think [the app] really hits the mark with giving us the flexibility and the tools that we need to get the average person engaged,” Murray says. Plus, in the past, AMC researchers struggled with being limited to five national forest plots for trained scientists’ use. “The citizen science data…brings in some spatial coverage that we cannot do alone,” Murray says. “That’s the benefit of the citizen science piece, because mountain terrain is so complex. We’re going to get a sense of the diversity of the data.”
In this pilot year, AMC is focusing on the White Mountain National Forest and the Appalachian Trail corridor. Murray says AMC hopes to continue and expand its use of iNaturalist, looking next to the Maine Woods.
Besides helping AMC compile critical climate-change source data, the app encourages users to pay more attention to the world around them, according to their own levels of interest. “They can just snap a picture and be done with it, or they can really engage on iNaturalist, which gives them the opportunity to learn more about the species that they found,” Murray says. “They’ll hopefully keep going with it.”