Atypical Scientists Contribute to NASA Data

A view of Antarctica from NASA’s Terra satellite. Credit: NASA Goddard

MAR. 24, 2022–Antarctica remains the least visited continent in the world. Temperatures average at a chilling -90°F, with the wind whipping aerosols. It feels quite like a certain red planet, though the huddled penguins give away that the continent is still within Earth’s influence.  Here, analog astronauts test equipment in preparation for distant missions.

As the wind dies, a group of pedestrians emerges from a nearby research vessel. With everyone bundled tightly, expedition leader Annette Bombosch instructs the group on how to capture the horizon. What appears to be a photographic moment is actually a scientific opportunity.

Together, these expeditioners are collecting cloud data for NASA’s GLOBE Clouds project. Without these manual entries, atmospheric and environmental scientists struggle to determine whether satellites above are detecting clouds or aerosols. Pictures of the sky from the ground allow for a clearer interpretation of data.

Often, NASA conjures images of rockets and oxygen tanks, but Bombosch is among thousands of citizen scientists that contribute to the space agency’s investigation of our pale blue dot. Since at least 2016, NASA has used these informal scientists to collect information about Earth.

“Few people have the opportunity to observe clouds here,” Bombosch shared. ”The cloud observations we are taking in the polar regions are of direct value.”

Contrary to expectation, these observers aren’t formally trained scientists. Several years ago, Bombosch began leading these atypical research projects across the Antarctic. Eager participants capture scientific data firsthand, which directly benefits projects around the world, including those at NASA. Known as citizen scientists, each personally contributes to extensive databases of observations.

With no extensive training or base knowledge necessary, anyone interested in capturing high-quality scientific data should visit NASA’s Citizen Science Repository.

“Direct involvement means [the participants] engage with and learn about science and the Antarctic environment,” describes Bombosch. “This can really impact their experience in a very positive way.”

Bombosch’s first set foot on the frozen continent seven years ago while pursuing a postgraduate certificate. Today, Bombosch remains passionate about protecting and understanding what she calls the “one last wilderness on our planet.” She and others founded the Polar Citizen Science Collective, an organization that brings research and educational opportunities to interested parties since 2018.

When recording observations from their doorstep, the citizen scientist becomes a local expert. Automatically, they “notice changes in our immediate environment,” that traveling academics may not recognize. While it may feel necessary to travel to a unique location—desert, rainforest, coast—NASA’s citizen science projects need data from every point on the globe. Wildlife, water, and cloud observations can provide a wealth of information that may seem mundane to the ordinary person, but offer deep insight to those who know what they’re looking at. 

“There is still so much we do not yet know about our planet, and our planet is experiencing changes worldwide,” shares Bombosch. “Each data point is valuable and adds to an important database.”

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