Date Published: July 5, 2018
Publisher: Public Library of Science
Author(s): Cody C. Reed, Julianne M. Winters, Stephen C. Hart, Rachel Hutchinson, Mark Chandler, Gitte Venicx, Benjamin W. Sullivan, Budiman Minasny.
Though citizen science programs have been broadly successful in diverse scientific fields, their adoption has lagged in some disciplines, including soil science and ecosystem ecology. Collaborations with citizen scientists may be viewed as a conundrum in these disciplines, which often require substantial labor and technical experience; citizen scientists could improve sampling capacity but may reduce sample quality or require training and oversight prior to and while performing specialized tasks. To demonstrate the feasibility of incorporating citizen scientists into soil biogeochemistry research, we conducted a proof-of-concept study in high-elevation meadows of the Sierra Nevada in California. A collaboration between university researchers and citizen scientists allowed us to assess spatial and diel patterns of soil greenhouse gas (GHG) fluxes with an intensity and frequency that would otherwise be beyond the capacity of a typical research laboratory. This collaboration with citizen scientists increased our sampling intensity by over 700% while only doubling the sampling error relative to that of full-time researchers. With training and support from project scientists, citizen scientists collected data that demonstrate spatial independence of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide at scales between 1 m and 175 m. Additionally, we found a lack of temporal variation over a 24-h period for all three GHGs. Citizen scientists participating in this one-day event reported levels of satisfaction commensurate with longer-term, immersive campaigns. The place-based event also proved an effective tool for teaching intangible concepts of soil biogeochemistry and promoting local conservation. Despite perceived barriers to entry, this study demonstrates the mutual benefits of citizen science collaborations in soil science and ecosystem ecology, encouraging adoption by disciplines that have been slow to take advantage of such collaborations. Short-term, local citizen science events can provide meaningful experiences for area residents and teach global biogeochemical cycles in a place-based context.
Citizen science is recognized as a valuable approach for achieving scientific research objectives and promoting public participation and interest in science . In ecological research, citizen science programs are well regarded for their ability to engage volunteers in participatory experiences that promote place-based learning by educating participants through experiences with local ecological properties and processes. Additionally, they foster scientific inquiry while allowing scientists to ask questions at ambitiously broad scales [2, 3]. Popular citizen science programs address biogeographic or demographic questions associated with flora and fauna (e.g., iNaturalist, eBird, National Phenology Network) or other natural phenomena (e.g., Aurorasaurus, Space Weather). In these programs, networks of geographically dispersed citizen scientists permit regional or continental scale monitoring, and the development of large, otherwise unattainable, datasets [2, 3, 4].
This study was conducted on August 29–30, 2015 in Loney Meadow, a 19-ha riparian low gradient meadow  that sustains one perennial and many seasonal streams. Loney Meadow is located at 1800 m elevation in the Tahoe National Forest on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada (39° 25′ 15.3113” N, 120° 39′ 17.5831” W). The meadow was under private ownership until 1989 and has a history of intensive grazing, logging and mining dating back to the late-1800s. The intensity of the grazing has steadily decreased since the 1960s but the site was still actively grazed at the time of the study as part of a US Forest Service grazing allotment. The area is characterized by a Mediterranean climate, with a mean annual air temperature of 9.4°C and a mean annual precipitation of 1600 mm . No permits were required as only non-invasive sampling methods were used and no vegetation or soil samples were taken.
This proof-of-concept study demonstrated that incorporation of citizen scientists into soil biogeochemical research can be beneficial for volunteers and scientists alike. Survey results from citizen scientists indicated the experience was positive and educational for participants. Incorporation of citizen scientists into the field-based campaign allowed researchers to achieve high resolution GHG sampling with an acceptable increase in sampling error.