The Earthwatch Institute, which has just celebrated its 35th birthday, supports vital research by dispatching fee-paying volunteers to project locations around the globe.

The Earthwatch Institute, which has just celebrated its 35th birthday, supports vital research by dispatching fee-paying volunteers to project locations around the globe.

This summer, environmental enthusiasts the world over will have shunned the beach in favour of spending their holidays hard at work on research projects, thanks to the Earthwatch Institute. To the scientist, Earthwatch offers the opportunity to boost research projects with money and a free workforce. To the volunteers, it offers an adventure holiday with the added satisfaction of having done something useful.    


Source: © Brad Norman

One Earthwatch team uses astronomers’ algorithm to identify spotted animals like the whale shark

Earthwatch is a not-for-profit organisation that recruits fee-paying volunteers to work on research projects, while also providing research grants. Most Earthwatch projects are in conservation research, but quite a few are also involved with climate change and the environmental impact of pollution. For those who like to do some digging, there are also archaeological and palaeontological projects on offer.    

Climate change in action   

Climate change is on everybody’s mind these days, but Earthwatch teams go to the locations where one can observe it happening. Two of the current projects relate to the effects of climate change in the Arctic.    

Physical geographer Andy Russell from Newcastle University, UK, applied for his first Earthwatch grant for his fieldwork in Iceland in 1997, following the November 1996 volcanic eruption underneath Iceland’s largest ice cap, Vatnajokull. Such rare events offer researchers the opportunity to study how glaciers work and how climate change may affect them, so Russell needed money and a few helping hands to make the most of it.    

He has been working with the organisation ever since. This year there have been four one-week expeditions to Iceland, and one to Alaska where related phenomena can be studied. The research wouldn’t be possible without the volunteers. ’Earthwatch volunteers provide invaluable assistance in the collection of labour intensive earth science field data,’ says Russell.    

Russell is hoping to continue the research beyond 2008. ’With global warming as a driver,’ he says, ’I expect we’ll be looking at the impact of continued glacier margin retreat.’ 


Source: © Dave Hilliard

Arctic volunteers measure the decline of the permafrost

In a separate Earthwatch-sponsored project, Peter Kershaw from the University of Alberta at Edmonton, Canada, is monitoring the decline of permafrost at the edge of the Arctic. This is likely to release huge amounts of carbon dioxide and methane and thus create a vicious circle that accelerates global warming (Chemistry World June 2006, p7). The work helps them to model and predict future changes as the climate warms. Projects also help local communities, which are heavily dependent on ecotourists.   

Volunteer Bob Pomfret, who works at Oxford Brookes University, UK, joined Kershaw’s expedition to Churchill, Canada, in October 2005. He recalls an unforgettable experience: ’standing on the tundra in a howling gale, trying to measure how far below our feet the permafrost is. Frankly it’s miserable, my fingers are frozen solid, and yet we all want to be here and we are all desperate to get the results as accurate as possible because we know that they matter."    

In the far warmer climates of the Bahamas, John Rollino, a senior ecologist at US firm Earth Tech, and his Earthwatch volunteers are studying the corals of the staghorn and elkhorn species, which have just been registered as ’threatened’ under the US Endangered Species Act. ’In the Caribbean, the decline of these species is the result of global warming, increased sedimentation, degraded water quality, disease, increased storm activity, and tourism damage,’ says Rollino. The next Bahamian reef survey will be this November.   

After acid rain?    

While many Earthwatch projects are concerned with averting present and future damage to the environment, hydrologists Josef Krecek from the Czech Technical University and Zuzana Horicka from Carles University in Prague, Czech Republic, are monitoring the recovery of ecosystems after acid rain. Throughout the 1980s, forests in central Europe suffered considerable damage from acid rain resulting from sulfur oxides in the emissions from combustion engines. Since then, legislation has been enforced to use low-sulfur fuels, giving less acidic rain and enabling a recovery of surface waters.   

But what has happened to the devastated forests and the acidified rivers and lakes with decreasing SOemissions? Since 1991, Krecek and Horicka have used Earthwatch support to study and encourage the rehabilitation of the ecosystems and water supplies in the Jizera Mountains, Czech Republic. In one of the most chemical Earthwatch projects, volunteers collect water samples from more than 35 streams and three important water reservoirs and measure pH, temperature, conductivity, and oxygen content. They also analyse soil, vegetation, and the vitality of the trees in that area.    

While they have been able to observe some positive trends and signs of recovery, there are also some worrying aspects. ’We are at the beginning of new peak of acidification of the mountain waters, this time based on nitrogen compounds from NOemissions and overfertilisation,’ Horicka explains. She is also worried about the way that reforestation is managed, with monocultures and liming from the air being particularly sore points. Like many other Earthwatch researchers, Krecek and Horicka are trying to involve the local community in their project and ensure that farmers, foresters, and others are doing their jobs in environmentally responsible ways.    

Tracing the origins of pharmacology   

While most Earthwatch-sponsored activities happen in the great outdoors and involve close contact with nature, a few projects deal with human history, heritage, and sociology. Science historian Alain Touwaide from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, US, directs one of the more unusual ’expeditions’, leading volunteers not into the wilderness, but into the rare book rooms of Italian libraries at Rome and Padua.    

Touwaide studies the use of medicinal plants in classical antiquity, from the fifth century BC to the third century AD. He is setting up a database, which he hopes will be a valuable tool both for historical investigation and for developing modern medicines. Within the framework of this research, his Earthwatch teams are analysing printed plant books (herbals) from the Renaissance. ’Without the support of Earthwatch I would never have started this research,’ says Touwaide. It requires hours and hours of meticulous analysis of ancient documents to extract the relevant information.    

Margaret Comerford, who took part in Touwaide’s Rome project, says: ’I found the whole experience and the interaction with the principal investigator and other people very stimulating and enjoyable’. Apart from the work on locations in Italy, volunteers can also sign up for ’behind the scenes expeditions’, supporting Touwaide’s research back home in Washington, and helping to build the online database where all the information gathered in Italy will be organised and made accessible.    

Touwaide hopes that his project will not remain the only one of its kind. ’I am very glad to have participated in the development of a new sector of activity within Earthwatch and I do hope that Earthwatch will go further in this direction, with interdisciplinary programmes at the crossing point of hard science and the humanities.’ 

Astronomical observations under water   

Brad Norman from Murdoch University, Australia, is developing a database of a different kind. He has taken interdisciplinary research to new levels with a project that uses an astronomical algorithm to identify individual sharks.    

Norman and Nasa researcher Zaven Arzoumanian have adapted the Groth algorithm, which astronomers use to compare patterns in their photos, to the task of identifying spotted animals. Being able to identify each animal by its spots is an important asset in conservation research, reducing the need for more labour-intensive and invasive procedures such as capturing and tagging each animal. Together with software expert Jason Holmberg, Norman and Arzoumanian have started to develop an online photoidentification library, which archives digital images of whale sharks and enables amateurs to contribute theirs.    

In his Earthwatch-sponsored research project on whale sharks of Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia, Norman is now applying the new method on a larger scale, supported by eight teams of six to eight volunteers each year. According to Norman, ’the project aims to gather new information on the threatened whale shark, ultimately to assist with their worldwide conservation. Any policy decisions will carry great weight and encourage broad support if based on strong data.’ Specifically, he hopes to establish how tourism and environmental change affect the migration behaviour and survival of the whale shark. Participants must hold a scuba diving certificate and can hope to interact with at least one and possibly up to six whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) per day. Volunteers need not be afraid; whale sharks feed by filtering sea water and are harmless.   

In the long term, the astronomical method may also benefit other species. Earthwatch Europe’s chief scientist Roger Mitchell explains: ’We think that the method can be applied to tracking other creatures too. Lions, for example, have small dark spots where their whiskers attach to their noses, and this differentiating feature might help to track them in the near future.’ Needless to say, the Earthwatch programme includes lion-watching expeditions, led by Bruce Patterson.   

South African penguins

Because there is no Earthwatch project in Antarctica (yet), Robben Island, South Africa, is one of the southernmost field locations of the organisation. The island, where Nelson Mandela was held imprisoned under the Apartheid regime, is a well-known hotspot for seabird biodiversity, and home to some 20,000 African penguins. The birds are affected by heavy shipping activity around the Cape of Good Hope. Several oil spills have happened here, resulting in thousands of ’oiled’ sea birds.    


Source: © Peter Barham / Tilo Burghart

Researchers are developing an automated recognition system for penguins

Polymer physicist Peter Barham from Bristol University, also known for his work on molecular gastronomy, is heavily involved in the project. He has been observing the penguins and other seabirds on Robben Island since a major oil spill in 2000, when around 13,000 penguins were contaminated on this island alone. Together with South African researchers Les Underhill, from the University of Cape Town and Robert Crawford, from the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, and helped by five Earthwatch teams per year, he discovered that penguins oiled in the 2000 spill have a significantly reduced breeding success. However, there is also some good news, as Barham notes: ’Orphaned chicks from the same spill that were hand-reared are doing remarkably well; they have high survival rates and are among the best breeders’.    

The initial aims of the project were concerned with designing and testing new, safer, flipper bands to identify the birds. ’Here I used my knowledge of polymers to come up with the optimum materials (a silicone rubber because it is inert, elastic and easy to mould) and my general physics to help design the optimum shape to reduce, as far as possible, hydrodymanic drag,’ says Barham.   

Helping the penguins wouldn’t be possible without the helping hands of volunteers. ’We rely on volunteers reading band numbers of penguins to be able to do this work at all,’ says Barham. ’The conclusions we have reached show that we need to continue this for at least another four or five years, and for this, Earthwatch support will be invaluable.’   

’More recently the project has been expanded and now (with significant funding from the Leverhulme Foundation) we are embarking on implementing an automated recognition system that can identify all the individual penguins from the pattern of spots they carry on their chests, thus obviating the need for any banding at all. This newer project is more computationally based and is in collaboration with colleagues in computer science and biological sciences.’   

Jeanie Elford, who joined the penguin project as a volunteer in 2004, says that it changed her life. ’I loved the close interaction with another species,’ she says. ’I also realised how important hands-on conservation work is and how we can all play a part in changing the world for the better. The penguins set me off on my vocational path.’ This path led her to another Earthwatch project entitled Caring for chimpanzees (led by Roger and Deborah Fouts) and then to an internship at an ape sanctuary.   

The future   

At the age of 35, Earthwatch has every right to look back with pride on its achievements and ahead to even more ambitious goals. ’We have a busy time ahead,’ says Earthwatch Europe’s executive director, Nigel Winser. ’Working with an increasing number of partners - locally and globally - and harnessing the best of the new computer and satellite technologies, we will continue to promote the model of ’’citizen engagement and high quality field science’’.’   

Michael Gross is a science writer based in Oxford, UK.

The Earthwatch Institute 

The Earthwatch Institute has a mission to ’engage people worldwide in scientific field research and education to promote the understanding and action necessary for a sustainable environment’.  

Earthwatch was set up when two scientists affiliated to the Smithsonian Institution’s Center for Short Lived Phenomena near Cambridge, Massachusetts, US, needed funding to cover field research threatened by government spending cuts. One of them was introduced to Brian Rosborough, a young investment banker, who used his knowledge of venture capital to syndicate expeditions to fee-paying volunteers.They subsequently set up Earthwatch to organise the expeditions and recruit qualified volunteers. In 1971 and 1972, Earthwatch ran four trial expedition teams with just 39 volunteers. In 1972, Rosborough created a Center for Field Research to allow peer review of proposals from interested scientists earning standing in the academic community. The organisation grew by 20 per cent per year in its first two decades. 

The not-for-profit organisation has grown internationally to become a major player in environmental field research, supporting some 140 projects annually in 50 countries, and dispatching around 3500 volunteers from 40 countries to scientists each year. The current focus is conservation projects that actively engage the public in sustainable development issues. In 30 years, the Earthwatch Institute has successfully deployed over 8500 volunteers, contributing $65 million to scholars of many disciplines. Apart from the US headquarters, in Maynard, Massachusetts, US, there are now affiliate organisations in the UK, Japan and Australia. Earthwatch Europe, in the UK, was first established by Rosborough in 1982-84 under the leadership of Trewin Copplestone, Peggy Post, Andrew Mitchell, and the late Edward Max Nicholson.  

Earthwatch Europe now resides in Oxford, UK, where it employs 50 professional staff led by Nigel Winsor, director, and Herschel Post, chairman.