Digital technology has become an integral part of everyday life, whether through the use of phones, smartwatches, drones, or more obscure apps found in the depths of the internet.
And while some movements are pushing to reduce screen time, environmental groups are increasingly harnessing technology to collect data on issues important to them.
From real-time locating areas flooded by sea level rise and intense rainfall to identifying habitats and monitoring water quality, digital technology is increasingly being used to collect information from members of communities directly affected by climate change.
“It brings the abstract of climate change to a concrete examplesaid Skip Stiles, executive director of Wetlands Watch, a Norfolk-based nonprofit.
The approach has been adopted by the state as well as independent groups: The Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation has RetainVirginiaan extensive compilation of different datasets used to identify the best areas where land can be conserved.
Given limited resources for conservation efforts, the tool is “more than beneficial, it’s needed,” said Jason Bulluck, Director of the Natural Heritage Program at DCR.
Not only does the advent of large-scale community data collection provide the scientific support that enables policy makers and researchers to quantify environmental trends, but it makes the public more involved in these issues.
The information is “civically legitimate data,” said Jeremy Hoffman, a climatologist at the Science Museum of Virginia who has used mobile thermometers to identify heat trends in urban environments.
This means that community members know how the data was collected and how to interpret the data.
The sea level rises
Wetlands Watch has been using maps to document environmental change for years.
But in 2012, when Hurricane Sandy hit and social media was widely used to share flood reports, “it made me think, ‘What if you could use social media to do the same what are we doing in church basements?’ “Stiles said.
At a cost of around $20,000 and after hiring a developer, the group launched a application in 2015 that allows users to take a photo of a flooded area and mark it on a map with a pin.
Users were primarily from the Norfolk area at first, but have grown to include Northern Neck residents, students and Girl Scouts seeking to earn their environmental awareness badge. An annual “Catch the King” event is held each fall to document the results of much larger high tides resulting from solar and lunar alignments at this time of year.
“We’re now building a network that we didn’t have before,” Stiles said.
The group shared the data to inform decision-making by regional planning districts and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, where researchers found compiling individual flooding cases from local police reports laborious, said Stiles.
The challenge is kkeep people involved long enough to collect data over time and better visualize what is happening.
Across the state, the nonprofit Appalachian Voices is using the Epicollect app to collect mine water monitoring data instead of forcing researchers to collect information at the hands on the spot, then to return to their offices to enter them into computers.
This is in addition to using satellite imagery to understand mine salvage or Google Earth Engine to see the state of vegetation on surface mines, said Matt Hepler, an environmental scientist with the group.
Cards for the molds
On the wildlife front, mapping is now integrated with assessments of Virginia mussels, molluscs that are beneficial for improving water quality but have become severely depleted over the years.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation is using grant funds to create a map that will allow viewers to identify habitats where mussels may live. Data collected from the map will then feed into a plan being developed with the James River Association to strategically guide decision-making around habitat creation.
“Technology has advanced a lot. Now we can make those large-scale investments that make a difference,” said Erin Reilly, senior scientist for the James River Association.
New state funding could help freshwater mussels come back
The mapping tool, which is expected to be operational within a year, will compile habitat data observed by multiple agencies to identify possible new habitats for the species, explained CBF senior scientist Joe Wood.
“There’s so much work to do, and obviously we have very limited resources,” Wood said. However, he said, these efforts, coupled with the $400,000 allocated by the General Assembly last session to develop a statewide mussel restoration plan and collaboration with other agencies, such as the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Harrison Lake National Fish Hatchery, can help guide decisions. .
“We’re really starting to move the needle,” said Rachel Mair, project manager at Harrison Lake Hatchery.
When Margaret Smigo, coordinator of the waterborne hazards programinator at the Virginia Department of Health, was hired in 2016, the agency algal bloom map was used as a beach watch map that was used to document bacteria problems.
The algal bloom map allows people from any area of the state to report blooms to the VDH. A Harmful Algal Bloom Task Force, co-led by VDH and the Department of Environmental Quality, is then deployed to collect samples to verify the report. Once it is confirmed and an advisory is issued for the water body, the designation is added to the VDH map, which is based on a free Google Map interface, for public viewing.
The crowdsourcing approach is helpful to the agency, which has a HAB program for the Tidewater region but lacks a comprehensive approach to monitoring freshwater sites, Smigo said. This is especially useful for areas like Lake Anna, which has approximately 200 miles of shoreline encompassing many “microclimates” that have different characteristics despite being close to each other.
“There are many different situations” where data collection can be useful, Smigo said. The work is routinely done by groups like the Friends of the Shenandoah River and the Intercoastal Potomac River Basin, which organize local collection efforts to monitor different areas of the state.
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