A Picture is Worth… Scientific Data

By Jeri Weiss

I climbed up Heifer Hill in Brattleboro, Vt., on a beautiful summer afternoon and spun slowly around, taking in the spectacular view. It was August and the trees were all leafed out and the meadow was lush.VtPanorama I couldn’t help thinking about what this might have looked like 10 years ago. What will it look like 10 years from now? What will it look like this fall? As it turns out, I will soon be able to get answers. The Bonnyvale Environmental Education Center in Brattleboro will have a tool to tell us all this story.

Bonnyvale, working with EPA New England, is setting up “a picture post” on April 22 to celebrate Earth Day. The picture post, one of dozens in New England and hundreds across the country, will guide visitors in how to take photographs from the exact same spot all times of the day and all days of the year. These picture posts are basically fences post with octagonal tops that show which way is north and invite anyone walking by to add their observations.

This Digital Earth Watch project, developed jointly by NASA and six other institutions, is run by the University of New Hampshire. Picture Post was created as a tool for non-scientists to monitor their environment and share observations. Using a digital camera, visitors take nine pictures – one in each direction and one up at the sky – and then upload them to Digital Earth Watch network. It’s even easier if you have a smart phone and can use the picture post app.

I learned about Picture Post as I was exploring ways any of us can participate in scientific discoveries at the Brattleboro Citizen Science workshop, which EPA helped organize earlier this month.

When I heard about Bonnyvale’s work I was intrigued, so I looked for a picture post closer to home. According to UNH’s Picture Post web page, two such posts sit on either side of the Fresh Pond reservoir in Cambridge, just 10 minutes from my home. It appeared the last time they were used was nine years ago. Last weekend I walked along the trail circling the reservoir, but found only one picture post remaining. I spoke with Fresh Pond Reservation Ranger Jean Rogers who told me one of the posts was removed when the Reservation created an outdoor community classroom and plans are being made to put it back up.

freshpond2007After a bit of hunting, I found the second post. I took a set of pictures, loaded them up to the web site and was able to see some big differences from the pictures taken nearly a decade ago. The once small, scrawny trees now grow outside of the frame. On the web site (and to the right) you can compare the pictures and even watch the scene animated as it scrolls through the photographic history from that post.

Picture posts not only provide information to Bonnyvale’s students or the Rangers at Fresh Pond, but also give freshpond2016valuable data to scientists. Researchers working with Digital Earth Watch network use the photographs to document the plants, clouds, and seasons—and how they are changing in response to a warming climate. It such a simple way for anyone with a camera to contribute to scientific research. Ten years from now we will be able to see the changes in places we care about, whether it’s the top of Heifer Hill, a spot on my walk around Fresh Pond or from a picture post in your neighborhood. http://picturepost.unh.edu

 

Jeri Weiss is a drinking water specialist at EPA and helped organize the Citizens Science Workshop.

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