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The Grassroots Social Network Documenting Real-Time Climate Change

The LEO Network is bringing together scientists and citizens to monitor climate change and spot trends.
The Toklat River, located in central Alaska.

The Toklat River, located in central Alaska.

Climate change is often only tangible to the wider public when its effects are at their most extreme. When the United States is subject to highly active hurricane seasons or extended periods of drought, people pay attention. But the slow march of climate change is still felt around the world in the day-to-day developments of people who are connected to nature as part of their jobs, lives, and survival. Indigenous groups in particular have had a front-row seat to climate shifts over the decades. Now, a group of scientists called the Local Environmental Observer network, is drawing from its roots in indigenous communities, and harnessing and mapping the observations of these people to get a real-time, holistic overview of climate change.

Over the past few decades, the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, the largest non-profit tribal health organization in the country, has received an increasing number of reports from its network of tribal staff in indigenous communities about the environmental change those communities are seeing. The ANTHC has long been trying to figure out a way to map the constellation of connections between climate change, subsequent environmental changes, and their health impacts.

But tracking these changes and connections proved difficult. Originally using tools such as Google Maps and local news reports, Michael Brubaker, the founder of the LEO network and the director of the Center for Climate and Health at the ‎ANTHC, and his colleagues tried to monitor smaller changes in the climate. This ranged from extreme temperatures to early animal migrations, to high levels of sediment in water. But the climate rarely changes all at once. It usually happens minute by minute, day by day; due to limited resources and reach, tracking all the changes wasn't possible. In 2012, Brubaker and the ANTHC created an app and website to track these daily changes in the environment with help from the people closest to them—tribal elders, scientists, fishermen, and hunters, to name a few.

That app became the LEO network, which now boasts over 2,000 members reporting from 488 communities, with almost 600 joining in 2017 alone. It features hundreds of observations from across North America, as well as throughout Australia, Africa, and Europe. Brubaker and the scientists behind LEO hope this kind of boots-on-the-ground, real-time monitoring can help them spot troubling trends in climate change before they become crises.

The methodology behind LEO is fairly simple. Anyone can join and post observations to the network. Based on a series of prompted questions, users can include a description of the observation, pinpoint its location, categorize the event into a sub-group ("Land," "Ocean/Sea," "Ice/Snow," or "Sanitation"), and tack on any pertinent background information. The process is purposely simple, and observations don't have to be couched in technical jargon. The point of the network, and the thought process behind how posts are designed, is to allow anybody to contribute, entering in data that experts can then build upon.

Jonathan Henzie, an environmental coordinator at the Allakaket Village Council who has posted observations on permafrost and erosion, has seen climate change affect his local community. He is new to the LEO network, having just heard about it in August; ever since, he's been actively posting, hoping it might offer him more information on the permafrost melting into his community's rivers. He's also reported on a wide array of changes occurring in many Alaskan villages, such as warmer temperatures throughout the winter and less snowfall, which have made it harder for people to use snow machines to gather wood and haul water.

Other observations include an uncommon sighting of a baby squid found far outside its habitat by a group of Alaskan school children, a lake in the Port Heiden area that is about to breach due to coastal erosion resulting from climate change, the challenging grazing conditions for reindeer and the effect on Sami reindeer herders, and firsthand accounts of sea star wasting syndrome.

The leg of this sea star is disintegrating as a result of sea star wasting syndrome.

The leg of this sea star is disintegrating as a result of sea star wasting syndrome.

But the implications of LEO go far beyond hyperlocal observations for climate change; it can also help scientists knit together trends from around the world, based on its global user base.

"It's an amazing tool for increasing the knowledge about actual events that are happening close to the zones that influence or are influenced by Guadalupe Island and its biodiversity," says José Antonio Romero Meza, a Mexican biologist at the Guadalupe Island Biosphere Reserve.

The network is serving its purpose, as it helps Brubaker and others map what constitutes a trend, see the impact of changes on environments separated by geography, and link disparate resources (such as people) together to address them. "We analyze the observations looking for events that have topical, geographic, and temporal similarities," Brubaker says. "If we see observations coming in repeatedly from one location, we suspect this is an ongoing event and will develop a project within the network to gather, map, track by time, and also connect the contributing observers to each other and topic experts."

Brubaker and his team will take a local trend—say an outbreak of a specific fish disease—and look to see whether similar posts have emerged from other communities. Sometimes the events have a seasonal resonance and they begin to see a specific kind of observation reoccur at the same time and location each year. Posts such as these ones on Coho salmon from different locations show a later-than-usual run, as well as outbreaks of specific types of parasites.

Other times, they can track the effects of climate change on animal life. As Fast Company reported, after an Alaska woman submitted a post about finding worms in multiple grouse she'd hunted in her Native Village of Unalakleet, the LEO network forwarded her report to the toxicology lab at the University of Alaska–Fairbanks. After taking a look, the lab asked her to freeze the birds and send them in. In conjunction with the University of Wisconsin–Madison wildlife laboratory, researchers identified the worms as the parasite nematode Splendidofilaria pectoralis, which is found in warmer-climate species. The researchers saw the appearance of the disease as an indicator of the rapidly changing climates in northern areas and published an article based on the findings in the Ecological Society of America Journal, all based on Kotongan's original post on the LEO network.

This isn't uncommon. Brubaker says some of the observations that have been made are published in peer-reviewed journals, and others have led to collaborations between agencies, academic institutions, and individuals. In the International Journal of Circumpolar Health, LEO observations contributed to a study examining berry levels in various ecological regions. The study found that there "have been changes in the productivity of some wild berries in the past decade, resulting in greater uncertainty among communities regarding the security of berry harvests."

Reporting outlets have also drawn from LEO network observations to bolster articles, including on issues such as the stalled spread of seasonal sea ice and the pervasiveness of invasive species.

In an atmosphere that's rapidly changing both politically and literally, the ability to call upon the knowledge and observations of citizens who care deeply about climate change represents an attempt to develop new ways to combat climate change outside of traditional methods. Indigenous peoples number around 370 million across the globe, speak 4,000 different languages, and represent 5,000 different cultures.

Utilizing a local knowledge network that crosses country borders, and, indeed, spans the world, can be an important tool to help document our changing climate. Where states and governments can't or won't go when it comes to addressing, documenting, and monitoring climate change, networks like LEO offer a way to do so.