Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Aiding Paradise: Volunteers are helping us understand and prepare for climate change

Volunteers make survey measurements
on the Nisqually Glacier
Many of you have already read the excellent 16-page special section in The News Tribune that came out last month called "Losing Paradise: Climate Change is Changing Mount Rainier." If you haven't done so, it's an excellent read, covering everything from the science behind climate change (both what we know and what's still uncertain) to its effects on the mountain's glaciers, rivers, plants, animals, visitors, and caretakers.

The one tiny flaw in this exceptional and comprehensive story is that nowhere are volunteers mentioned -- at least, by that title. But anyone who knows anything about Mount Rainier knows that volunteers are intimately involved in everything we do, and that is certainly true of our efforts to understand and prepare for climate change.

This mountain is one of the best places on the planet to study the local effects of changing climate, and as the article suggests, it has attracted a swarm of graduate students. Many are independent researchers, working with their universities under research permits. Others are hired as volunteers or interns by the National Park Service through programs like the Geoscientists-in-Parks program, a partnership with the Geologic Society of America (whose interns have contributed greatly to Mount Rainier over the years, and whose 2015 positions are accepting applications until February 3rd). Scott Beason, a park geologist, began his career as a "GIP" intern. John Beyeler and Rebecca Rossi, who spent the summer of 2013 gathering stream data in the Carbon River channel, and who are featured on the cover the special section in the News Tribune, sitting on an island surrounded by the rushing river, were two more such interns. Emily Knoth and John Russell, 2014 interns, are photographed conducting surveys at Longmire. Mitch Haynes, pictured mapping the Nisqually Glacier, was a 2014 summer volunteer working with park geomorphologist Paul Kennard.

MeadoWatch volunteer Karen Murante
surveys wildflowers on Mazama Ridge
Volunteers help in other ways, too. They survey sensitive animal species on our wildlife crews, and serve as Citizen Scientists, documenting the changing populations of amphibian surveys in wilderness lakes and ponds. "MeadoWatch" volunteers monitor the timing of when flowers bloom and set seed, and its Park Service and University of Washington facilitators are working with NASA satellite imagery to develop predictive snow melt models. The volunteer Cascade Butterfly Survey tracks fluctuations in butterfly populations over the years. Even casual park visitors can get involved, by submitting their geotagged photos for researchers to analyze. The deployment of volunteers gives us hundreds of data points where, if we relied solely on paid staff, we would have only dozens.

And, of course, when the rivers rise, causing damage like that of the November 2006 floods that wiped out roads, bridges, trails, and campgrounds, volunteers respond to make repairs. Miles of trail were rebuilt almost entirely by volunteers; it's no exaggeration to say that large swaths of the park would still be closed off without the help of partners like the Washington Trails Association and Student Conservation Association who helped organize work crews. Community groups representing REI, Boeing, Starbucks, the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, church groups, military units, geocaching clubs, and dozens of others joined hundreds of individuals to grade and build and brush and plant.

You can make a difference! Volunteer with our MeadoWatch, Butterfly Survey, or Citizen Science programs to help gather data for researchers. Share your photos of flowering plants (how simple is that)! Work with our Trail Crews, and with our partners at the Washington Trails Association, to continue repairing and maintaining damaged trails. Support the work of other partners like Washington's National Park Fund and the National Parks Conservation Association. Join other volunteer efforts throughout the year, and encourage your employee associations, church groups, civic groups, and community organizations to contribute. Together, we can make a real difference. See you on the Mountain!

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