In the aftermath of the devastating Black Summer bushfires across eastern Australia, hundreds of people throughout Australia and the world contacted the Australian Citizen Science Association (ACSA) to ask how they could help.
ACSA is Australia’s peak citizen science body and works to advocate for and support more than 500 scientific projects across the nation. It partnered with the CSIRO and the Atlas of Living Australia to identify opportunities for volunteers, or ‘citizen scientists’, to help with bushfire response, monitoring and recovery efforts.
The result of this work was the Citizen Science Bushfire Project Finder, a key outcome of the January 2020 bushfire science roundtable convened by the Australian government.
One of the projects included in the Project Finder is the Environment Recovery Project, a key recovery initiative which has been underway since 1 January 2020. New funding from Minderoo Foundation will boost the project’s reach and impact.
Understanding how the environment recovers from the recent fire season is an important scientific goal. Based in New South Wales, but with observations included from fire grounds across Australia, the Environment Recovery Project involves citizen scientists walking through areas of burnt bushland and submitting their observations via iNaturalist, an online repository for biodiversity observations.
They take photographs of plants (new seedlings or resprouting), animals (alive or dead, tracks and scats), fungi, lichen and landscapes (showing scorch height and the amount of leaves burnt in the canopy, shrubs and ground cover) from within bushfire-affected areas. Observations of both common and rare species are important.
The intention is that the data collected will show which habitats, animals and insects are being affected more than others and how the recovery is tracking over time, to inform further research. The aim is for the data to be used to assist the NSW government to understand which species may be in trouble and need extra help to survive, and to help inform future bushfire responses.
Casey Kirchhoff, a PhD candidate at the UNSW Centre for Ecosystem Science (CES) and founder of the Project, was inspired to engage citizen scientists after the Morton bushfire destroyed her Wingello home in January 2020.
Mrs Kirchhoff’s passion for the environment and natural curiosity inspired her to start tracking the post-fire recovery of the environment surrounding her property, despite her loss.
“I realised I was probably among a handful of scientists collecting this information. So, I thought, why not ask citizen scientists to share their photos? The bushfires have burnt such a large area; it’s impossible to properly survey it with our current resources,” she said.
“The more observations we can collect, the more we will know about the impact of the fires on our environment – particularly in the major bushfire areas in south-eastern Australia and right up to Queensland.”
With more than 46,000,000 acres burnt in the 2019-2020 bushfire season, understanding how the environment recovers from this unprecedented fire season is an important scientific goal.
In the future, more recruits will be needed to make biodiversity observations in unburnt areas, in order to provide comparative data for analysis.
ACSA National Coordinator Amy Slocombe said citizen scientists were making a very tangible contribution to the data collection project by submitting thousands of observations across a large geographical area in a short space of time.
Tapping into resident populations had also enabled the project to continue right throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, when travel restrictions prevented research scientists being able to move around.
“To date there have been more than 10,000 observations of 1,854 species by 310 people,” Ms Slocombe said.
“This is an incredible response within a short period of time and shows how strongly people affected by the bushfires want to contribute to the recovery process.
“For people who have lost everything, it gives them the opportunity to do something useful, that has a purpose, and to feel part of a like-minded community.”
Ms Slocombe said the collaboration between Minderoo Foundation and the Australian Citizen Science Association was helping to scale up the reach and impact of the project.
Minderoo Foundation funding will also assist the production of online training tools and video resources to help make the project open and accessible to all.
“To date there have been more than 10,000 observations of 1,854 species by 310 people. This is an incredible response within a short period of time and shows how strongly people affected by the bushfires want to contribute to the recovery process.”
Amy Slocombe, ACSA National Coordinator