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Help Make History: Eclipse Projects for Citizen Scientists

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This is the first U.S. solar eclipse in the age of smartphones. This technology makes new forms of citizen science possible. (Google)

The solar eclipse this month will be our country’s first total eclipse in the age of the Internet. Technologies that are commonplace now, such as smartphones, were nearly unthinkable in 1979, the last time there was a total solar eclipse seen from the continental U.S. Today’s instant global connectivity makes whole new kinds of citizen science possible.

The smartphones that each one of us has in our pocket are data-gathering machines, and when we upload an observation or a photo, scientists can know exactly where we were on the planet at the very moment we took it.

Here are some simple and fun ways to be a scientist for a day on August 21st. Grab your phone, because most of them involve downloading an app.

Life Responds

During a total eclipse, the common orb weaver spider stops what she’s doing, and starts diligently eating her web. This is her nighttime routine, but she’s doing it during the day. Is she responding to the sudden darkness? Or maybe the sudden change in temperature?


Spiders disassembling their webs, birds going to roost, gray squirrels running into their dens. There’s loads of anecdotal evidence that animals change their behavior during solar eclipses, but scientists haven’t systematically gathered this information — until now.

The California Academy of Sciences’ project, Life Responds, invites people to join one of the largest examinations of plant and animal behavior during an eclipse ever made. To participate, plan to observe nature during the eclipse — whether in the wilderness or your home or backyard — and download the iNaturalist app on your smart phone.

The six-spotted orb weaver is known to eat her web at night. What will she do during the eclipse? (Rebecca Johnson / Cal Academy of Sciences)

Then, on the day of the eclipse, scout your surroundings and choose an animal to observe. Rebecca Johnson, citizen science research coordinator at Cal Academy, recommends choosing an animal that you suspect might change its behavior, such as spiders, ants and birds — even captive animals such as chickens, dogs or cats. Or, maybe pick a flower that normally closes at night, such as the morning glory or the California poppy.

Life Responds will make a permanent record from the observations, Johnson says. Johnson and her partners will make this information available to scientists and anyone else who’s curious.

Click here to learn more and get involved.

GLOBE Observer

NASA’s GLOBE Observer program invites people to spend the day of the eclipse observing what happens to the weather when the sun is blocked out for a period of time.

The temperature may drop. Clouds may change. The wind may shift.

To participate in this project, download the GLOBE Observer app. In the weeks before the eclipse, take a couple minutes to learn how to read a cheap thermometer and how to characterize cloud types (the app can help with that). On the day of the eclipse, pay close attention to the sky and record what you observe every 10 minutes for two hours before and after the eclipse. You observations will help scientists understanding more about how the sun’s rays impact weather.

“It’s an opportunity for everybody to realize their deep connection to the sun,” says project coordinator Holli Riebeek. “It’s so easy to take it for granted. This project helps you think about that relationship in a new way.”

Click here to learn more and get involved.

Eclipse Soundscapes

Here’s one thing most people don’t associate with eclipses: sound. The solar eclipse doesn’t impact only the visual environment, it also affects the soundscape. This citizen science event is part scientific inquiry and part artistic creation, and offers blind and visually impaired people a way to experience the eclipse.

Eclipse Soundscapes gives a multi-sensory experience for the blind and visually-impaired (Kelsey Perrett / Eclipse Soundscapes)

During an eclipse, day temporarily turns to night. Nocturnal animals such as crickets will emerge and start to sing, and diurnal animals such as birds will quiet and nest. Loud cities may temporarily fall silent as everyone looks toward the sky — people may gasp, or laugh.

By recording the environment before, during and after the August 21 eclipse, you can capture these changes in the sound environment.

“Our main goal is to record as much scientifically valuable information as we can,” says project founder Henry Winter, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “We will then combine that information on a web-searchable database that any researcher can have access to.”

To participate, all you need is a recorder or smartphone with recording capabilities. Set up away from noisy machinery or powerlines. Start recording 30 minutes before the eclipse will reach its fullest condition in your area  and for 30 minutes after. Upload your recording to the Eclipse Soundscapes website.

Your recordings will be geo-located and made publicly available to scientists and artists.

The Eclipse Soundscapes phone app will also provide a multi-sensory show on the day of the eclipse. Glide your fingers over the app and it will respond with tones that sonically interpret the moon’s passage over the sun.

Comparing thousands of high quality photos of the eclipse will help scientists answer questions about the sun’s atmosphere. (iStock)

This project is a way to “provide an engaging experience for people who have historically been left out of astrophysics enterprises,” says Winter. “And a good way to start building tools that allow people who have not traditionally had access to astronomical information to have access to it in some real way.”

Click here to learn more and get involved.

 Eclipse Megamovie

Taking a good picture of the eclipse is hard to do and potentially dangerous for your eyes and camera. Many experts discourage people from trying.  However, if you’ve got a fancy camera and you’re passionate about snapping photos of this celestial phenomenon, then you might as well join the Megamovie club.

UC Berkeley astronomer Alexei Filippenko is helping with a project to stitch together photos to create the first crowd-sourced video of the progression of the eclipse over 90 minutes.

Though too late for the Megamovie itself, anyone can upload their images of totality to the project’s website through Labor Day. They’ll be included in a vast image archive for future research.

“Our primary goal is to collect as much imagery as possible and to hold it in a vast public-domain archive for future study,” Filippenko wrote in a recent article in Discover Magazine.

Click here to learn more and get involved.

HamSci Project

Have you ever wondered why you can hear some AM radio stations at night that you can’t hear during the day? It has to do with the ionosphere, an electrified layer of the earth’s atmosphere 50 miles over our heads, which absorbs radio waves and sometimes refracts them back to earth.

The eclipse impacts the way radio waves move in the atmosphere. Ham Radio operators can collect data on August 21 to help answer space physics questions. (Tracey Regan)

During the day, UV rays from the sun strike atoms in the ionosphere and knock off some of their electrons, causing them to become charged. At night, this process stops and an entire layer of the ionosphere dissipates. But what if the sun gets blocked by the moon? Does the same thing happen?

To partake in the HamSci project, take a couple minutes in the weeks before the eclipse to find an AM radio station you can only hear at night. Then, during the eclipse, tune into that same channel and see if you can hear a signal as the sun dims. Write down what you heard and where you heard it and email your observation to the project organizer.

If you’re a ham radio operator, there’s a lot more you can do. Space physicist and HamSci organizer Nathaniel Frissell from the New Jersey Institute of Technology is asking ham radio operators across the U.S. to collect a wide range of data during the eclipse.

“It’s a chance for radio-lovers to contribute to something bigger,” says Frissell.


Click here or here to learn more and get involved.

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