From Acadia to Yosemite, park visitors’ posts yield environmental data

This map shows the average “greenness” of North America from MODIS satellite data. Red points represent the locations of the national parks used for the study.

Researchers seek clues to climate change in photos posted to social media by national park visitors

Studying how climate changes affect plant and animal life is nothing new. Hundreds of years ago, scientists relied on the field notes of amateur botanists, consulted birders and even farmers. More recently, satellites have offered far more detailed data.

But a potential new tool has been identified: Social media.

A study published this spring in PLOS ONE, “Observing Vegetation Phenology through Social Media,” has determined that “the widespread use of social media has created a valuable but underused source of data for the environmental sciences.” Phenology is the study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena, especially in relation to climate and plant and animal life.

Researchers studied images of eight U.S. National Parks posted on Twitter, looking for the amount of green vegetation in each image.

“We wanted to use this study to see if social media could be an additional data point to pair with satellite data,” says Andrea Thomer, assistant professor of digital curation at the University of Michigan School of Information (UMSI).

Thomer co-authored the study with lead author Sam Silva (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), and co-author was Lindsay Barbieri (University of Vermont). The study was funded by the Earth Science Information Partners, where all three of the authors held Early Career Fellowships.

“We were interested in seeing more localized data,” Thomer says. “Satellite data is massive; we wanted to see if social media could give a closer view,” not unlike a camera zoom lens. As the study notes, monitoring vegetation is “a useful indicator of ecosystem response to climate change.”

The study itself was small, Thomer says, but it demonstrated the potential to use social media images to augment this field of study in a variety of ways.

As she says, phenology’s overall purpose “is to understand trends over time, but it’s used a lot these days to look at climate change, and how it’s affecting us in immediate ways. For instance, did the growing season start earlier or later than last year and what might that mean?”

Sheryl James, UMSI PR Specialist

Posted July 12, 2018