SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Next time you take a picture of a redwood tree, you might be doing more than snapping a vacation memory. You might be taking part in a massive science project to help redwoods survive into the next century and beyond.
A team of scientists and environmentalists Friday is set to announce a sweeping new citizen-science effort that aims to enlist thousands of members of the public -- armed with cell phones and digital cameras -- to build a vast new catalog of the world's redwoods.
The project, spearheaded by Save the Redwoods League in San Francisco and dubbed "Redwood Watch," will create a detailed map showing where individual redwoods live so that over the next century, as the climate continues to warm, scientists can track how the trees react and how their range shifts.
"It's important to do it right now," said biologist Emily Limm, director of science and planning for the league. "We want to be able to see if the range of the redwood ecosystem is changing through time. We want to make sure that we are buying land and prioritizing restoration in the right places." The project is the latest example of "citizen science," a growing trend in which professional scientists are asking the public to use home computers, digital cameras and other devices to help collect large amounts of information that scientists otherwise wouldn't be able to gather.
"Instead of having a couple of museums and graduate students go out and collect data, we can scale to the problem by unleashing the masses," said Scott Loarie, a postdoctoral fellow in the department of global ecology at the Carnegie Institution for Science at Stanford University.
"I also love the idea of using this technology, which is increasingly cutting people off from the natural world, to get people back connected with the natural world." The way the project will work is simple: People who are interested in participating can take a photo of any redwood tree. They record the date and location, and upload it to the website of a nonprofit organization called "iNaturalist." If they own an iPhone, it's even easier. They download the free "Redwood Watch" app from the iTunes store, and then snap a photo of a redwood and click "send." The photo, along with longitude and latitude coordinates, and the date, is automatically uploaded to a Google map at iNaturalist.
An Android app is not available yet.
Loarie is co-director of iNaturalist, along with Ken-ichi Ueda, a Berkeley computer programmer who helped develop the site in 2008 as a master's project at the University of California, Berkeley. The site already has 1,036 unique users, and 14,694 different observations, most of them photographs of plants and wildlife taken in California. One feature of the site allows users to post an image and ask scientists and other users to identify the species.
Loarie noted that in the mid-1990s, scientists began using satellite photos and GIS computer maps broadly to revolutionize the way the world's plant and animal species are studied. Now, he said, citizen science projects are similarly ushering in a new era of research.
iNaturalist is also working with citizen scientists at Stanford's Jasper Ridge preserve and Pepperwood Preserve in Sonoma County to catalog plants and animals, and is working to establish a global amphibian list with the Smithsonian Amphibian Rescue Project and the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
California's coast redwood, the tallest tree in the world, reaches heights of more than 300 feet.
The trees exist in a narrow band, covering 1.9 million acres, from Big Sur in Monterey County to the California-Oregon border. As the world's climate warms, researchers have documented how the amount of fog on the California coast has declined by roughly one-third in the past 50 years.
Increasingly, they are concerned that redwoods, which rely on the fog, could suffer. Future generations may need to plant new redwood forests in Oregon or Washington -- or perhaps elsewhere in the world, like New Zealand -- to try to preserve redwood ecosystems.
But until now, most of the maps scientists have show only general outlines of where redwoods live. Or they are satellite photos that show the tops of the trees but nothing under the canopy.
Healy Hamilton, a redwood expert who is director of the Center for Applied Biodiversity Informatics at the California Academy of Sciences, said it isn't important to photograph and map every tree. Rather, she noted, it will be critical to map trees on the southern, northern and easternmost edges of the redwood range, so researchers can see over time how that changes. Also, cataloging trees at high altitudes, or low valleys, will help show trends, such as if new redwoods in the future are growing only in higher or lower areas. That will help shape which sections of land conservation groups, state parks and other land managers try to preserve. "You don't want to spend a lot of time and money protecting land where redwoods might not be able to grow in 50 years," she said.
Tracking redwood location also will help verify computer models in the future, to show whether their predictions were accurate, she noted.
"Scientists need to have the best understanding of where redwoods can live today to understand how redwoods will live with a climate-altered future," Hamilton said. "There is no better way to understand the true distribution of redwoods than to ask people to help us find them."
(c) 2011, San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.).
Visit MercuryNews.com, www.mercurynews.com.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.