Hiking in the Name of Science

Nature nerds take to the woods as citizen scientists.

It started with a meltdown on the Appalachian Trail in 2004. After a bruising day tromping up and down the spine of the Atlantic Seaboard, Gregg Treinish realized that, although hiking was good for the soul, he needed something more. Having walked hundreds of miles, he felt as though he had nothing to show for it. It was the low point of the journey. “In that moment, I vowed to myself that I wanted to be outside, making a difference,” Treinish said.

After traversing the high Andes and tracking wolverines in Montana, Treinish came to another conclusion: You don’t need an advanced degree to pick up scat or collect water samples. Members of the adventure sports community could lend a hand on research projects where many eyes and ears were needed. While working as a wilderness instructor and field biologist in the American Rockies—on the behalf of universities and public land managers—he gleaned that with a bit of training, much of the grunt work could be performed by volunteers.

In 2011, Treinish founded the nonprofit organization Adventure Scientists (AS) to serve as a conduit between outdoors enthusiasts and science.

AS enlists hikers, runners, mountain bikers, and other outdoor lovers to perform basic research tasks in far-flung corners of the world, while enabling people passionate about the outdoors to become citizen scientists. Based in Bozeman, Montana, the organization serves as a matchmaking service, of sorts, pairing adventurers with suitable skills with scientists in need of research assistants. As of 2017, over 1,150 people contributed 27,820 days to conservation. Weekend warriors can monitor their local stomping grounds, whereas skilled mountaineers might join science expeditions to Antarctica.

As more digital tools enter the hands of ordinary people, the possibilities for citizen science projects are endless.

Citizen science is not new, but it is undergoing a revival. The Audubon Society has encouraged birders to record and tally their findings for decades. Many zoos, parks, and cultural institutions also have outreach programs. But as more digital tools—from drones to smartphones—enter the hands of ordinary people, the possibilities for citizen science projects are endless. “Previously, a researcher would go out on their own and pay one thousand dollars for ten samples. They can now partner with us and collect tens of thousands of samples at twenty or thirty bucks,” Treinish said.

Rock stars of the adventure and science world, such as National Geographic filmmaker Trip Jennings and marine conservationist Celine Cousteau, serve as advisors. However, the AS is largely composed of goal-oriented people who want to have an impact, Treinish said.

Among the citizen science projects now underway or nearing completion are a global survey on microplastics and a road kill survey that recruits runners and cyclists to photo document and record the locations where road kills occur using GPS.

Presently, 60 volunteers have signed up for the Gallatin Microplastics Initiative. Now in its second season of operation, the volunteer hikers, runners, paddlers, and fly fishers study the Gallatin River for signs of pollution. They’re participating in a multi-year study to collect water samples at multiple points along the river to detect the presence, absence, and quantity of microplastics.

The river’s significance is not lost on the residents of Montana. The headwaters of the Gallatin River flow from Yellowstone National Park and course through public lands, thought to be pristine, as well as the town of Bozeman and the nearby Big Sky Resort. “This is a chance for us to work in our home community and engage with outdoor recreationists who are looking for ways to give back and contribute to the long-term conservation of this place,” said Katie Holsinger, a program coordinator for AS.

The Gallatin project is an offshoot of the Microplastics Initiative, a global database of marine pollution. Microplastics are composed of degraded plastic, measuring less than five microns in diameter. Invisible to the eye, these bits accumulate in the tissue of living organisms and work their way up the food web to humans, winding up on our dinner table in the form of seafood.

“A lot of the sources of microplastic found in the ocean begin in freshwater systems.”

Media reports on the mid-ocean garbage patches and the threat microplastic poses to marine life raises red flags among environmentalists, concerned over what could be lying just beneath the surface. According to the AS website, about 80 percent of the world’s rivers and streams contain microplastics, ranging from degraded fishing line to synthetic microfibers. “A lot of the sources of microplastic found in the ocean begin in freshwater systems,” Holsinger said.

Ironically, even advocates of the “leave no trace” ethos may also be contributing to the problem. Recent findings indicate that a single synthetic fleece jacket, when put through the laundry, sheds up to 250,000 microfibers. Given the hundreds of thousands of fleece garments in need of a good scrubbing after hard use, it seems fairly obvious that synthetic fibers are taking a toll on freshwater ecosystems.

Next up on  AS’ list? Recruiting hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts to survey native bee populations in remote locations across the United States. America’s native bee species number in the thousands, but not much is known about them, which raises a lot of questions about their viability.

Meanwhile, the organization aims to hit the sweet spot between having fun and making an impact. Winter has finally loosened its icy grip on the Gallatin River, and spring hiking season is in full swing, making it the prime time to collect samples for the microplastics project. “I’m headed out there with a bunch of my friends—hoping to collect a bunch of water samples,” said Treinish.

Get involved with AS here.

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