Global Earth Challenge

Satellites give citizen scientists a new view of Earth

In a galaxy far, far away — okay, maybe not that far away — nearly 5,000 satellites orbit the planet. Dozens of these satellites observe the Earth’s biosphere, monitoring changes in the atmosphere, oceans, vegetation, forests and even Arctic ice sheets. 

But satellites can also help us solve more tangible problems. The data collected from these satellites can identify where to host a plastic clean-up, locate endangered habitats or record air pollutants in your area. Because space data has many applications, policymakers and citizens alike can use data to inform environmental needs and take climate action.

A great example of these satellites at work came in the ‘80s. In 1987, a NASA satellite allowed scientists to see a hole in the ozone layer. This led to the Montreal Protocol, an international treaty created to preserve the ozone layer by reducing the amount of production, consumption and emission of harmful chemicals that caused the hole. 

Today, we have more environmental problems than the ozone hole. We have unbreathable air in India, wildfires in Brazil, Indonesia, California and Australia and hurricanes hitting the American Gulf and East Coast

As these environmental and climate-change-fueled disasters get worse, geospatial data will be essential. 

Citizen science bridges space and earth

Although space satellites have come a long way, satellites still have limited capacity to capture details in our environment that can be important for policymakers. 

Citizen science — public participation and collaboration in scientific research — can help close these gaps by popularizing the use of geospatial data and making it more accessible. Citizens living near areas of interest for scientific researchers can provide real-time data by taking photos and recording their observations. This way, scientists can better understand what’s on the ground and can offer solutions to potential problems. 

Likewise, the increasingly available geospatial data can help citizen science projects gain legitimacy in the scientific community, which has long been skeptical of the value of data collected by citizen scientists. 

Citizen science has also decreased the distance between the space community and the public thanks to the increasing popularity of mobile devices, social media and cost-effective sensors. Apps such as iNaturalist and ISeeChange allow nearly everyone to contribute to scientific research and discovery. 

For example, citizen science technology and the help of local bird-watching groups has allowed researchers to observe a decline of 2.9 billion birds in the past 50 years. This past summer, swimmers and scuba divers helped scientists verified the existence of a massive heatwave menacing coral reefs in Hawaii. 

Become a citizen scientist

April 22, 2020, marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. To continue building on the world’s largest environmental movement, we need citizen scientists engaged and empowered. That’s why Earth Day Network recently partnered with the Wilson Center and the U.S. Department of State to launch the world’s largest coordinated citizen science campaign, Earth Challenge 2020.

The initiative challenges millions of global citizens to collect more than a billion data points in areas like air quality, insect population and plastic pollution. Sign up to learn more about citizen science, follow us on twitter @Earth_Challenge or visit our website

Image at top: Photo by NASA on Unsplash.