Minnesota’s natural observers
ST. PAUL — In the name of science, Minnesotans are counting loons at the lake cabin, listening for frogs and peering at milkweed for monarch caterpillars. They’re catching dragonflies, measuring the clarity of local streams and noting the date when the first lilacs bloom.
Using members of the public to gather data is nothing new. The national Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count is an early example of putting volunteers to work for science. But the scope of citizen science projects has grown as the Internet and cellphone apps make recording and sharing data easier. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology lists nearly 200 national and regional projects on its website (birds.cornell.edu/citscitoolkit/projects), ranging from volunteer bumblebee watchers to an effort to get Alaska cruise passengers to photograph whales.
Here are three examples of how volunteers in Minnesota are using their curiosity and passion to further understanding of the natural world. They include networks that track precipitation, a county wetland-monitoring program and a new effort to get Minnesotans to record what so many already do naturally — looking for the first signs of spring.
One of the simplest ways to contribute to science is to measure rainfall. In 1970, the State Climatology Office, the National Weather Service and the University of Minnesota started recruiting people to put a rain gauge in their backyard.
“We were trying to get a better handle on the patterns of rainfall,” said assistant state climatologist Peter Boulay. “It can vary a lot from place to place.”
About 1,400 Minnesotans now send daily rain measurements to MNGage, usually via their local soil and water conservation district. The data is tapped by the National Weather Service to predict flooding and checked by everyone from scientists to mosquito-control districts, farmers and insurance adjusters. Getting many people to contribute readings results in what one researcher calls a “high-resolution” picture of what’s happening.
It’s been a success because Minnesotans care about their weather.
Dave Wierstad, a dedicated 77-year-old North St. Paul retiree who has measured the weather since 1962, has an answering machine message that informs callers, “I can’t answer the phone right now because I’m outside checking the rain gauge.”