Monday, February 24, 2014

Citizen scientists join NASA to predict snow melt and wildflower bloom

Citizen Scientist Karen Murante collects
MeadoWatch data on Mazama Ridge in 2013
Last summer, 48 volunteers participated in our new citizen science program called "MeadoWatch," collecting about 17,000 data points on the timing of flowering plants at Paradise. This winter, the program's coordinators, Janneke Hille Ris Lambers and Jessica Lundquist at the University of Washington and Regina Rochefort at North Cascades National Park, received a grant from NASA's Applied Sciences division to study ways of combining these data with satellite imagery to forecast dates of snow melt and peak flower bloom. Such information would help managers at Mount Rainier National Park to set spring schedules, including plowing, facility opening, trail maintenance, and the timing of meadow restoration, and would help park visitors to plan the timing of sightseeing and backcountry hiking. Researchers would also be able to use these forecast models to project future impacts from global climate change, including the effects on plant communities and wildlife activity. Community groups like the Mountaineers and Washington Trails Association could benefit from such information as well.

NASA's grant program seeks to find useful ecological or natural resource management applications for its Earth observation products, in combination with biological observations by citizen scientists. The grant will fund a one-year feasibility study, which could be followed by three years of additional funding if the first year produces promising results.

In our case, the project is based on four premises:
  1. Snow disappearance can be forecast from MODIS Snow Cover imagery, captured by satellite, in combination with SNOTEL data collected at the Paradise weather station.
  2. Snow disappearance influences the timing of wildflower bloom. (Previous research by Elli Theobold, beginning in 2002, has shown a strong correlation between the two.)
  3. Quantifying wildflower "phenology" (the dates of budding, flowering, and setting seed) is feasible through Citizen Science.
  4. Natural resource management and conservation would be improved by a better understanding of the dates of snow disappearance and wildflower bloom.
In addition to the research conducted by citizen scientists at Mount Rainier last summer, Lambers and others have used "geotagged" photos on the popular photo service Flickr to add data points to their study. Most digital photos today include embedded information about when they were taken, and embedded location data are becoming more and more common as well, especially in images taken with smartphones. The researchers were able to find more than 2,000 photos on Flickr that included both date and location data, allowing them to collect "crowd-sourced" information about when and where the flowers had bloomed.

NASA imagery from January 2014
(for a comparison with 2013, see the
Cliff Mass weather blog.)
Over the next year, with the help of NASA funding, the UW researchers will develop and validate models for forecasting snow disappearance and wildflower phenology, using NASA satellite imagery, climate station data, remote microclimate sensors, MeadoWatch data, crowd-sourced photography, and previous research. They will also try to develop new products that are both feasible and helpful for decision-making. If these efforts are successful, the next step will be to refine the models and develop methods of automating them through remote sensing.

Meanwhile, volunteer will continue to be a key component of the research. This summer, MeadoWatch volunteers will return to the Paradise trails to watch and document the flowers as they bud, bloom, and set seeds. These ground-based, human-gathered data will be combined with high tech satellite imagery to come up with new ways of understanding our world.

If you'd like to participate in the MeadoWatch program, visit the project website at, or contact Anna Wilson, MeadoWatch coordinator, at You can also upload your own wildflower photos to the group's Flickr page at

Here is the original project proposal that won the NASA grant:

Snow, Montane Wildflowers, and Citizen Scientists
HilleRisLambers, Lundquist & Rochefort

Proposal Summary
The timing of key life events like reproduction (i.e. phenology) is tightly linked to climate. For example, alpine wildflowers emerge and flower within a few weeks of snow disappearance, and complete their life‐cycles before first frost in early autumn. Because annual variability in snow disappearance is large, the timing of seasonal wildflower displays also varies annually, influencing visitation and staffing needs within parks. Additionally, as climate change causes earlier snow disappearance, wildflowers that cannot shift their phenology to match this altered “climate window” may decline. Thus, resource managers and conservation biologists need the ability to seasonally forecast snow disappearance and wildflower phenology as well as monitor their long‐term annual trends to better conserve and manage high mountain wildflower meadows.

To address these issues, we propose to combine MODIS‐based images of snow covered area (SCA), citizen science observations and models to develop decision‐making tools at Mt. Rainier National Park (Washington). Specifically, we will develop and validate snow models driven by MODIS SCA and daily observations of temperature, precipitation and snow (from a SNOTEL climate station) that generate spatially explicit forecasts of snow disappearance date. Next, we will use date‐stamped photos of wildflowers from photo‐sharing websites to develop phenological forecasts driven by snow disappearance date. Phenological models will be validated with data from an existing citizen science program, which will be expanded in scope to meet monitoring goals. Finally, we will partner with the National Park Service to create a long‐term monitoring program of snow dynamics and wildflower phenology. Operationally, these estimates will 1) help managers plan where and when trail maintenance, conservation/restoration activities, and monitoring can occur, 2) allow visitors to better plan trips to view and photograph wildflowers, and eventually, 3) help resource managers identify the climatic and biological signs of climate change.

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