USGS Scientists Need Your Eyes and Ears

By Christopher Hook and Jessica Robertson

Map of tweets containing the word

Map of tweets containing the word “terremoto” (Italian for “earthquake”) collected in the two minutes following a magnitude 6.0 earthquake in Northern Italy on May 5, 2012. The red star shows the location of the earthquake. The tweets are concentrated in the epicentral area but discussion of the earthquake has already spread beyond the impacted region. This shows the speed that USGS Tweet Earthquake Dispatch (TED) collects tweets to provide insight into potential earthquake events. Image Credit: USGS

In an ever-changing environment, it would be ideal if the U.S Geological Survey had a presence in every corner of the nation. While we may not be able to cover every inch of the landscape, we can greatly enhance our scope with your help.

The USGS has a variety of citizen science efforts where you can report what’s happening in your own backyard. We want to know if you felt an earthquake, saw a landslide, have a new building going up nearby, or have flowers blooming earlier than normal. If you live in Alaska, we want you to tell us if you experience a volcanic ash fall and even collect a sample.

And the information you provide does not just sit on a shelf. Instead, it gets aggregated and disseminated through a variety of tools geared toward making this information easily accessible so it can be put to use. As an example, there are interactive online systems where people can report what it was like during an earthquake, and then see all the reports for that event mapped out for the affected area.

Through your contribution, not only will your observations build a much larger and more complete database, but you will also become a virtual member of the USGS scientific team!

Improving Earthquake Monitoring

Did You Feel It?

Did You Feel It? (DYFI?) is an online crowd-sourcing system developed by the USGS for the public to provide first-hand accounts of earthquakes they experience. As one of the longest standing and most successful examples of citizen-based science to date, it has garnered more than 2,790,000 total responses since its launch in 1997.

Through this program, users are able to document the shaking level they experienced and find out what was felt elsewhere. Specifically, USGS scientists aggregate results by zip code (domestically) and by city (globally) to show reported shaking intensity. Those reports also augment shaking data from sensors and are incorporated in ShakeMaps used for emergency response. To document your seismic encounter, visit the DYFI? home page and fill out a brief questionnaire.

Tweeting and Shaking

Many regions around the world have only a scant number of seismometers, complicating the rapid detection and characterization of earthquakes. To enhance earthquake monitoring, Twitter has proven to be an advantageous source for USGS scientists to receive rapid firsthand accounts of potential events.

The USGS Tweet Earthquake Dispatch (TED) program rapidly detects possible earthquakes when a large number of public tweets mention “earthquake” or its equivalent in several languages. These tweet-based detections often come prior to sensor alerts in sparsely instrumented regions. USGS analysts at the National Earthquake Information Center (NEIC) receive these indicators and then turn to more accurate earthquake sensors and instrumental data for confirmation and quantitative assessment. For earthquakes with a magnitude 5.5 or greater, the USGS sends out notifications via the Twitter account @USGSted to people around the world.

Crowd-Sourcing Success

The valuable role of crowd-sourcing data is outlined in a recent report by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, authored in collaboration with the USGS.

The report also highlights success stories from TED, DYFI? and related USGS activities. For example, although there was an exceedingly swift international aid response to the massive 2008 earthquake in Wenchuan, China, the first reports of the event outside of the impacted area came from citizens, and information spread through the use of social networking tools such as Twitter. Similarly, approximately 148,000 individuals used DYFI? to describe their experience of a magnitude 5.8 earthquake that occurred in Virginia on Aug. 23, 2011. Because large-magnitude earthquakes are fairly rare along the East Coast, there were only a handful of seismometers installed nearby to record the event. Thus, much of the preliminary data regarding this earthquake came from the DYFI? system.

Ascending eruption cloud from Redoubt Volcano as viewed to the west from the Kenai Peninsula. Photo Credit: R.J. Clucas, USGS

Ascending eruption cloud from Redoubt Volcano as viewed to the west from the Kenai Peninsula. Photo Credit: R.J. Clucas, USGS

Did You See It? Watch Out for Landslides

In an average year, landslides can cost the United States up to 2 billion dollars in damage. Now, scientists at the USGS are asking the public to help track landslides to better understand how to protect lives and property. This is being done through the system, Did You See It? (DYSI?). This program allows respondents to report detailed accounts of observed landslides, including photographs. To make your contribution, visit the DYSI? webpage and click on the Report a Landslide tab.

Is Ash Falling? Helping Monitor Volcanic Eruptions

Alaska has an abundance of active volcanoes, averaging two eruptions a year. Citizens in Alaskan communities can now go online and report their observations of volcanic ash through the Is Ash Falling? system, which was developed by the Alaskan Volcano Observatory (AVO). Ash fall reports are shared with the National Weather Service (NWS) to track where an ash plume is headed and to guide them in making official statements and advisories about ash fallout onto the landscape. AVO is jointly operated by the USGS, the Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys, and the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

This tool will help AVO scientists build a more complete record of the amount, duration, and extent of ash fall. Getting first-hand accounts of ash fall will also help refine computer models of ash cloud movement and interpretation of satellite imagery. Citizens are also encouraged to collect ash samples and send them to AVO. With your help, volcano scientists can greatly expand their sampling of ash deposits.

The National Map Corps: Earn Your Badge

Citizen volunteers are also making significant additions to The National Map (TNM), a web-based geospatial visualization platform. The public is encouraged to collect data on manmade structures such as schools, hospitals, post offices, police stations, and other buildings. The project started last year in Colorado and has expanded to 35 states. A recognition program has also been created where badges can be earned based on the number of data points a volunteer contributes.

Observing phenology is a fun activity for adults and children alike. Photo Credit: Brian Powell, USA-NPN

This effort is through The National Map Corps (TNMCorps) Volunteered Geographic Information project, which partners with organizations such as 4-H and GISCorps. To start your own badge collection, go to the TNMCorps project site to learn more and sign up as a volunteer!

Observing Nature’s Calendar

As the seasons come and go, temperatures fluctuate, leaves emerge and change colors, and animals migrate. What better way to learn about our changing world than to examine it for yourself? The USA National Phenology Network gives you this opportunity through its widely successful program, Nature’s Notebook.

Volunteers are collecting observations of these seasonal changes—referred to as phenology—to help scientists better understand subjects including climate change, invasive species, agricultural production, impacts of frosts and freezes, and the timing of pests and diseases. In a few simple steps, you can become a citizen scientist and join this expedition to examine nature’s calendar.

Get Involved and Start with Science

The interconnectedness of contemporary society is staggering. Currently, there are more than 2 billion internet users worldwide. As USGS citizen science proves, social media is no longer limited to just “liking” a picture. Through innovation and taking advantage of the opportunities available, the USGS has been able to work with millions of citizen scientists across the globe to discover more about our world than ever before.

Starting with science, which includes having robust databases, allows for the most informed decisions. USGS research wouldn’t be as detailed without the public’s help. We encourage each of you to see how you can provide public service to your community by helping study our earth.

Reprinted from the USGS Blog.

Published Tuesday, July 16th, 2013

Written by Christopher Hook and Jessica Robertson

Published in



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