As a traveller, how can you give back to the communities you visit? In Antarctica, a continent that has a native population not of humans but of wildlife, one of the best ways to help this fragile and remote environment is through participation in citizen science programs. Citizen science programs in Antarctica collect and harness valuable data that researchers can use to better understand our planet.
While the term is often tossed around in the media, what exactly are citizen science programs? The term is defined by the National Park Service as ‘Citizen science is when the public voluntarily helps conduct scientific research. Citizen scientists may design experiments, collect data, analyze results, and solve problems.’
Wait a minute, you might be thinking, but I’m no scientist! That’s the beauty of it – anyone can help out, as long as they have an inquisitive nature and an interest in making the world a better place.
If you’re thinking of a trip to Antarctica, here’s what you need to know about the power of citizen science programs!
In Antarctica, some expedition ships, including the Ocean Endeavour, offer onboard citizen science programs that guests can participate in on their trip. These tend to have a focus on marine biology, oceanography, glaciology (the study of glaciers and ice) and meteorology. However, you can find similar opportunities if you’re visiting the Arctic as well.
Some of the programs offered during the 2022/2023 season on the Ocean Endeavour include:
Spotting whales is one of the highlights of any Antarctic expedition, so a fun and easy way to turn whale watching into citizen science is through Happywhale. Established in 2015 by Antarctic expedition leader Ted Cheeseman, participants take photos of the whales they see and upload them to Happywhale’s website, where researchers identify the whales by their unique markings.
This data allows scientists to track the movement of whale populations across vast oceans over time.
It’s a bird…it’s a plane…actually, it’s a cloud! You’re sure to see some unique cloud formations in Antarctica, so if you can pull yourself away from adorable penguins and look up occasionally, taking a few cloud photos for NASA’s Globe Observer program can be an easy way to help.
Why clouds? Cloud formations play a big role in reflecting and absorbing the earth’s emissions, so by studying clouds, scientists can gain lots of valuable insight into the earth’s climate.
You can help by taking photos of clouds that you see and uploading them into NASA’s cloud app.
While penguins are perhaps the best-known Antarctic bird, you’ll also discover plenty of amazing seabirds when you visit, including the wandering albatross, several types of petrel, the Antarctic tern, and skuas.
By working with an onboard ornithologist, or bird expert, you’ll identify and count the sea birds you see from the deck for a set period of time. This helps researchers better understand both the migration patterns and habitats of seabirds, some of which are endangered. Your expedition crew may run seabird surveys both in the Drake Passage and once you’re in Antarctica.
Phytoplankton are one of the tiniest residents of Antarctica – a phytoplankton is a microscopic type of marine algae. In the FjordPhyto citizen science program, backed by NASA, Antarctic travellers will help collect water samples from Antarctic fjords. Researchers will then examine the phytoplankton levels, which provide insight into biodiversity, since many species depend on phytoplankton as a food source. Studying phytoplankton can also help scientists understand climate change and how Antarctica’s fjords are being impacted by global warming.
However, different cruise operators may offer different programs onboard, so it’s great to see so much research happening in both Antarctica and the Arctic.
Easy! When you’re booking your Antarctic expedition, look for a tour operator that offers genuine citizen science programs, meaning they’re backed by a university or qualified research team. Each program should have a clear aim and a comprehensive research methodology that outlines how data will be collected, used, and analysed to further our scientific knowledge of Antarctica.
If you’re not sure, ask questions! While not common in Antarctica, greenwashing is a common problem with citizen science (and both carbon offsets and sustainable tourism in general), in which a company says its programs or products are helping the environment, when really it’s just a marketing ploy. You can avoid this by doing your research beforehand and asking questions to ensure your efforts will be worthwhile.
Once you’re onboard, you can generally help out as much as you’d like. The ship’s citizen science coordinators will provide you with more detail about when and how you can join in.
And if you’re thinking of booking with a cruise company but they don’t offer citizen science programs, let them know! If travellers provide feedback to tourism companies that citizen science is important to them, this can prompt more operators to offer these programs in future seasons – which means more valuable scientific data to help the great white continent!
Also, tell your friends and family about how fun (and beneficial) it is to help out onboard, encouraging them to do the same -since citizen science programs can be found all over the world, anyone can get involved, no matter where they are.
There are so many incredible reasons for citizen science, both for travellers and researchers. As a traveller, it’s a fun way to immerse yourself into the habitat you’re visiting; a great way to get involved and learn more about the flora and fauna of a place like Antarctica. Plus, it’s rewarding to know that you’ve contributed to the betterment of the world’s scientific knowledge!
For scientists, citizen science provides a wealth of data that otherwise wouldn’t be accessible. Researchers, of course, can’t be everywhere at once, so with hundreds and thousands of citizen scientists out there, collecting large quantities of data that otherwise wouldn’t be captured, our understanding and knowledge of the world are improved.
Interested in becoming a citizen scientist in Antarctica? If so, check out our Ocean Endeavour voyages, each with plenty of exciting ways to get involved.