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Citizen science: Collecting agroclimate data

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Media Relations
Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada

Citizen science, also known as crowd-sourced science, is research conducted by amateur scientists. Similar to the way you can help small business start-ups through crowd-funding, so too can you help scientific research by providing information from your area.

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) creates all kinds of maps and information about agroclimate (the relationship between climate and agriculture) conditions, events, and impacts; but they can't rely on just one source. Information from weather stations, satellites, and people on the ground all help paint the picture.

It's easy to see why: while traditional weather stations (about 2000 across Canada) are excellent at capturing information about precipitation and temperature at a particular location, in some areas they're spread far enough apart that a storm could easily pass between stations undetected. Volunteer reporters located between stations can help collect valuable information that improves the quality of reporting by filling in these gaps. 

"Canadian geography and soil type can vary significantly in a short distance. One inch of rain over nearby locations with different soil types, vegetation, topography, and drainage can result in very different impacts. A weather station gauge will tell you how much it rained, but it cannot tell you what the impacts are. A person can."

- Patrick Cherneski, Manager, National Agroclimate Information Service, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada

Also, humans are better than machines at some tasks. For example, snow is particularly difficult to measure with automated weather and climate gauging stations, as it can vary in density and does not fall uniformly into measuring devices. Volunteer reporters doing daily measurements improve both the coverage and quality of reporting.

Two major citizen-science agroclimate collections AAFC is involved in are the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network (CoCoRaHS) and the Agroclimate Impact Reporter.

CoCoRaHS began in the United States in 1998 and came to Canada in 2011. By using low-cost measurement tools, training, and an interactive website, the aim is to provide high quality data for natural resource, education, and research applications. Volunteers are required to have a 4 inch diameter rain gauge and a snow ruler to allow them to make daily measurements of rain, hail, or snow, which they then enter online.

AAFC incorporates measurements collected through CoCoRaHS in the production of daily agroclimate maps. Hundreds of maps on temperature, precipitation, and other parameters are made available online on Drought Watch for all to use. Reports from CoCoRaHS reporters in rural areas with a low number of climate stations, from gap areas between climate stations, and snow measurements are especially valuable.

Another application of citizen-collected data is seen in the Agroclimate Impact Reporter (AIR), an activity AAFC began in 2013. This easy-to-use online geospatial tool allows volunteers to report on the impacts of weather and climate conditions and events in their region. Rather than providing purely numerical measurements, volunteer reporters qualify the impacts of weather conditions, which provide an important level of information for decision making. To gather this kind of data, online and geospatial technology is used to enable volunteer reporters to report impacts by making selections on standardized scales. For example, to what degree do you anticipate livestock feed supply shortages over the winter? - High, Medium, Low, Not At All. Reporters can also add specific details.

"In some respects, it is more important to know the impacts from conditions or events than to know the absolutes like how much it rained. There is no better source for impact information than those who live in the affected areas."

- Trevor Hadwen, Agroclimate Specialist, National Agroclimate Information Service, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada

The greater the number of reporters, the more reliable the data. AIR is most active in the Prairies (Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba) where there are approximately 300 active reporters. Efforts are underway to develop the AIR volunteer network in Ontario, the Atlantic region, British Columbia, and Quebec.

The end goal of both programs is to provide information for better decision making. The more information available to users, the better their decisions will be. For example, AIR allows AAFC policy and program developers to understand developing risks more quickly and to better target programs. It could also be used by individual producers to better understand the regional impacts of weather and to inform their marketing plans, but all with the same goal: better decision making.

Key facts

Photo gallery

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Former AAFC student Gen Lindsay recruits new citizen scientist volunteers at the Ag in Motion trade show near Langham, Saskatchewan
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AAFC creates many maps using agroclimate impact data, for example, this map that shows feed production in western Canada during the summer of 2016.
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CoCoRaHS employee, Julian Turner, uses a special ruler to measure snow depth. Photo courtesy of CoCoRaHS.

More volunteers are needed for both programs. If you're interested in making a significant impact through citizen science, visit the websites below to find out more.

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