Citizen Science with NASA GLOBE

Holli Kohl from NASA GLOBE sits down with Ask Science to discuss the power of citizen science, the role of clouds in our Earth's ecosystem, and how we can use a simple app to monitor our own air quality while contributing to NASA research.

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD
9-minute read
Episode #255

Want to contribute to NASA research or maybe just find out whether the mosquitos in your area are the disease-carrying kind? The NASA GLOBE Observer program shows us how to monitor our environment—from clouds to mosquitos—and contribute our observations to research conducted by NASA scientists. This week, Holli Kohl from NASA GLOBE sat down with me to discuss the power of citizen science, the role of clouds in our Earth's ecosystem, and how we can use a simple app to monitor our own air quality while contributing to NASA research.

EE: I am here with Holli Kohl from NASA’s GLOBE program, short for Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment. Thank you so much for being here, Holli! Could you tell us what it is that you do at GLOBE?

Holli Kohl: I coordinate the NASA GLOBE Observer team and I work out of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Green Belt, Maryland.

EE: GLOBE Observer connects scientists to students, teachers, and anyone else looking to contribute to science and learn about the environment.

This collaboration between researchers and “citizens” or volunteers among the public to conduct scientific experiments is known as citizen science. As a scientist myself, I am super excited about citizen science projects because they mean that we scientists can think beyond ourselves when it comes to designing an experiment. As an astronomer, I can’t possibly classify tens of thousands of galaxies based on their shapes and sizes, at least not without more hours in the day. But that’s okay. I can get help from anyone who has an internet connection and at least five minutes to spare on contributing to astronomy research.

Citizen science, of course, also offers up opportunities for making scienceincluding both the process of conducting an experiment and the resulting datamore accessible. This isn’t your high school chemistry lab homework; this is real, current, investigative research.

So Holli, can you tell me more about GLOBE and some of the citizen science that you enable?

Holli Kohl: As you said, GLOBE stands for the Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment Program which is a bit of a mouthful, but I think that the important part is the end there. The observations we are collecting is for the benefit of the environment. So we are asking people to go outside and tell us things that they observe about the environment around them that will help us understand Earth’s systems science. The program, as you mentioned, is largely student based. However, a year ago we decided to open the program up to anybody. So anyone can participate in taking some of those observations under the GLOBE Observer Program.

And GLOBE Observer is a free smartphone app. It is available in Google Play or the App Store, and it means that anyone can go outside and take observations right now of clouds and report those back to us. And those observations are then applied to science programs that help us verify what we’re learning from satellites. Other scientists can use the data as well for their own research.

EE: So what are scientists trying to learn from these cloud observations?

Holli Kohl: Clouds are one of the things that help transfer energy around our planet. So a lot of the energy from the sun comes in the tropics, and clouds, as part of the water cycle, help transfer that energy out to the poles and across the planet. They also have a really important role in maintaining our climate, our planet’s temperature. And so there are a lot of scientific questions around what happens to clouds as our atmosphere warms. And the reverse question is how do clouds impact warming in the long run? If the atmosphere is cloudier, for example, will it cool things down or are clouds going to retain more energy and make the climate warmer? It’s looking more and more like it’s the latter—that clouds actually have a positive feedback effect in that they tend to warm the atmosphere a little bit.

There are a lot of questions around what clouds roles are in the Earth’s system and that’s the sort of information that your observations help scientists understand. So what we’re doing with it is we’re taking that cloud data that you send us and we are incorporating it into our analysis of satellite data and using it as a verification that what we think is a cloud is actually a cloud. There are certain cases, particularly when the ground is very bright or light in color that it is difficult to differentiate between a cloud and the surface.

Your observations also help tell us what’s happening to clouds when we’re not looking. We do have an improved network of satellites that are kind of always looking at the same spot on Earth but a lot of our satellites are in orbit from north to south and only pass over a particular area on Earth once a day. So your observations help us fill in some of those gaps.


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About the Author

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD

Dr Sabrina Stierwalt earned a Ph.D. in Astronomy & Astrophysics from Cornell University and is now a Professor of Physics at Occidental College.