Citizen scientists provide clarity for lake researchers’ big questions


A massive new study of water clarity trends in Midwestern lakes is sure to make some waves in scientific circles.

The study involved nearly a quarter of a million observations in 3,251 lakes spread across eight states, and data dating back seven decades. But it’s where that data came from that’s truly noteworthy. For the report, published online April 30 in the journalPLOS ONE, researchers turned exclusively to citizen scientists.

Each and every observation came from a lakefront homeowner, boater, angler or other interested member of the public wanting to know a little more about what’s going on in “their” lake.

More and more, ecologists are looking at big picture issues, like how changes in land use or the climate affect ecosystems at a state, national, or even continental scale, saysNoah Lottig, a co-author of the study. Lottig, a scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’sTrout Lake Station, a research facility run by the Center for Limnology, says there aren’t enough scientists in the world to collect data for these projects but, thanks to citizen scientists, “there’s a lot of information out there and, really, citizen data has been underutilized.”

In an attempt to start capitalizing on citizen-generated data, Lottig and a team of freshwater scientists from across the U.S. combed through state agency records and online databases full of water clarity measurements taken by nonscientists using a circular, plate-sized instrument called a Secchi disk. Used in aquatic sciences since the mid 1800s, Secchi disks hang from a rope and are lowered into the water until their distinct black and white pattern disappears from view, a distance that marks the “Secchi depth.” Lake associations and other citizen groups have used the disks for decades to document conditions on their respective waters.

Previous studies have shown that citizen Secchi readings are nearly as accurate as professional scientists’ measurements, says Lottig. With a dataset covering more than 3,000 lakes and stretching back to the late 1930s, his team decided to ask questions about large-scale and long-term change.

The Clean Water Act made a perfect candidate. Signed into law in 1972, the act set water quality goals for all U.S. waters. Thanks to the data collected by citizen scientists, Lottig’s team had water clarity measurements for decades both before and after the act came into effect. Somewhere in that data, they reasoned, they might detect a landscape-scale shift over time to clearer (often an indicator of cleaner) water.

What the authors found was that, on an individual scale, some lakes were getting clearer while others were not. However, says Lottig, combining all that data together indicates that there is a slightly increasing trend in water clarity at a regional scale. “Unfortunately,” he says, “the data don’t exist to explain those patterns.” Lottig hopes efforts like the “Cross-Scale Interaction” or “CSI Limnology” project, an international team of scientists that he’s a part of, can collect global data on things like water chemistry and aquatic biology that will add context to the data generated by citizens.

Though the citizen scientist dataset limited his team’s ability to explain the patterns they observed, Lottig says it suggests that such information can play a role in shaping future research — a possibility that has some scientific organizations taking notice.

“This study highlights the research opportunities that are possible using data collected by citizens engaged in making important environmental measurements,” says Elizabeth Blood, program director in the National Science Foundation’s Directorate for Biological Sciences, which funded the work. “Their efforts provide scientists with data at space and time scales not available by any other means.”

For Ken Fiske, it’s an effort that’s well been worth it. In 1985, Fiske saw a call for volunteers for a new Wisconsin citizen lake-monitoring program. Fiske, who had recently bought property on the shoreline of Lake Adelaide in northern Wisconsin, didn’t hesitate to sign up.

“My interest, initially, was in finding out what the quality of water in Lake Adelaide was and seeing what we could do to maintain it,” he says. “And if anything started to get out of whack, we could identify it very quickly.”

For the next several years, Fiske took a monthly five-hour drive up north to take measurements. Eventually, he got some neighbors to help. Nearly thirty years later, they are still going strong.

“It’s a cooperative thing and that’s what makes it work and we’ve been doing it long enough that it makes the results meaningful,” he says.

That meaning goes beyond the landowners around Lake Adelaide. All over the country, folks like Fiske have been peering into lakes for decades, collecting data on water clarity, temperature and more. And now, professional scientists are harnessing their efforts to try to answer some of the biggest questions on Earth.


6 Responses to Citizen scientists provide clarity for lake researchers’ big questions

  1. 14098106 May 4, 2014 at 4:57 am #

    By involving the citizens in this project is a very good idea, they are concerned about their own enviroment and will sacrifice some of their time and money the help with the research done on the lakes. if they know what is going on in their water sources they can make people alert to help protect the sources and make it endurable for future use. this can create a ten dense where peolpe can get involved to save our enviroment and water resources.

  2. u14100712 May 4, 2014 at 12:10 am #

    What a great way of developing a science culture in communities! If citizens could make an extremely difficult (nearly impossible) research task more easier, then why not! Local citizens will gain knowledge and this will contribute to their better understanding of science. It is important though to enhance the skills of the citizens who will be conducting the research, or has been doing so for quite a few years. This could be done by skills development programmes. Research already obtained could be used as an indicator to implement programmes that would improve the quality of the water. All of the statistics are not of entirely accurate research and therefore no drastic changes should be made concerning the act implemented. What does baffle me, however, is whether all the citizens use the same instruments or equipment to gain information for the research? This could influence results. If so, it might be clever to find fundings providing citizens with adequate equipment.

  3. 14188849 May 3, 2014 at 11:02 am #

    I think that citizen scientists are making a noble effort to help professional scientists, but at the same time it is very possible that citizen scientists may make mistakes in doing their research because they weren’t trained in the field. This idea would work wonders if the citizens underwent a standardized coarse on how to take these measurements on the water quality accurately and precisely to ensure that the overall research is credible.

  4. Galaletsang(u14002907) May 2, 2014 at 9:17 am #

    It is vitally important for scientists to collect data with regard to the lakes in order to study the trends of water clarity and climate changes that will affect the lives of the dependents of the lakes.It is even more exciting and inspiring when local citizens take interest in their surrounding lakes;making essential observations that serve as a helpful tool in the scientists’ research.The mere fact that the community becomes involved in finding out how climate changes affect their land and nearby waterbeds shows a great deal of concern for not only their well-being, but their environment as well.Seeing that there is a crisis in relation to the number of qualified scientists in the field,it is fair to say that citizen scientists play a major role in assisting scientists with their data as they provide extra helping eyes,ears and hands with regard to making observations of the lakes,conducting research of the changes in climate,as well as the water conditions,that occur and collecting useful data for scientists to further examine(“professional scientists are harnessing their efforts to try to answer some of the biggest questions on Earth”).It would be a great investment if there were programs/organisations that gave basic training to citizen scientists for the mere purpose of inspiring and empowering the local upcoming scientists.

  5. Galaletsang(u14002907) May 2, 2014 at 9:15 am #

    It is vitally important for scientists to collect data with regard to the lakes in order to study the trends of water clarity and climate changes that will affect the lives of the dependents of the lakes.It is even more exciting and inspiring when local citizens take interest in their surrounding lakes;making essential observations that serve as a helpful tool in the scientists’ research.The mere fact that the community becomes involved in finding out how climate changes affect their land and nearby waterbeds shows a great deal of concern for not only their well-being, but their environment as well.Seeing that there is a crisis in relation to the number of qualified scientists in the field,it is fair to say that citizen scientists play a major role in assisting scientists with their data as they provide extra helping eyes,ears and hands with regard to making observations of the lakes,conducting research of the changes in climate,as well as the water conditions,that occur and collecting useful data for scientists to further examine(“professional scientists are harnessing their efforts to try to answer some of the biggest questions on Earth”).It would be great if there were programs/organisations that gave basic training to citizen scientists for the mere purpose of inspiring and empowering the local upcoming scientists.

  6. Rebecca King (14252377) May 2, 2014 at 3:45 am #

    I found this article very inspiring. In South Africa, our land is very prone to drought. This makes our water a very important resource. However, people in general mistreat our water. Wastage, dumping and polluting are daily problems for us. The fact that, in this article, it is the citizens who are caring for the lake is really interesting. I fully agree with the notion that we as individuals are responsible for the environment we live in. Each person can make a difference. It is the responsibility of the people of South Africa to ensure the protection of our water. I wish we could take a leaf out of the “Citizen Scientists” book.

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