Smartphone apps encourage local involvement in a changing climate

A handful of apps are making it easier for rural communities to report on climate change in Alaska. With a swipe of a smartphone, locals can submit environmental observations, and there’s even an app aimed at preventing further change.

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Screen shot of observations from the LEO Network. (Photo courtesy of Mike Brubaker, founder of the LEO Network.)
Screen shot of observations from the LEO Network. (Photo courtesy of Mike Brubaker, founder of the LEO Network.)

Mike Sloan is the Director of Tribal Resources for Nome Eskimo Community. He’s also a Local Environmental Observer, or LEO.

The Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium created the LEO Network back in 2012 as a way for locals to document unusual environmental events like coastal erosion, wildfires, or even stranded snowmachiners.

Sloan pulled his smartphone out of his pocket. It took a few seconds, but finally the LEO Reporter app appeared on his screen.

“Slow internet…” Sloan explained.

The screen on his smartphone showed the state of Alaska speckled with different colored dots, each representing a different observation.

Because Sloan is in Nome, it automatically zoomed in to an aerial view of town. Sloan tapped on a little light blue dot just off the coast. It’s a post from January 1, 2013.

“Actually, it was a post I did,” Sloan admitted. “We had a strong winter wind that broke off the sea ice in front of Nome and moved it off shore [and] there was a snowmachiner trapped on the ice floe. They were able to save him.”

After Sloan submitted his observation to the LEO Network, it was then tagged it with a similar event in the Canadian Arctic. Sloan said the LEO Reporter app makes it easy for anyone to connect the dots, more specifically across Alaska.

“Say, if we have bird die-offs in Kodiak, we can go to LEO, look for bird observations, and it will pull up any other bird observations around the state,” Sloan said.

Five-hundred miles southwest of Nome, residents of St. Paul Island in the Pribilofs are using a similar app. It’s called the Bering Watch Citizen Sentinel App. Pamela Lestenkof co-directs the Ecosystem Conservation Office on St. Paul Island.

“Back in St. Paul, it’s our hunters, our beachcombers, and our fishers,” Lestenkof explained. “They’re the ones that are out there on the land, so they’re the first [that would] see a stranded marine mammal or dead birds.”

Locals have been sharing observations on Facebook for years, so Lestenkof says a database of those observations just made sense.

“And then once it’s uploaded in our database, we can publish it to Facebook,” Lestenkof said. “So there’s incentive for them to share it.”

But not all apps are aimed at observing changes. Gino Graziano helped develop one aimed at preventing them.

“Let’s see here… where did I put it?” Graziano said as he swiped through his smartphone. “There it is. It’s Alaska Weeds ID.”

Graziano teaches classes on invasive species at UAF’s Cooperative Extension Service in Fairbanks. He and his colleagues teamed up with the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the University of Georgia to develop the Alaska Weeds ID app that helps people identify weeds native to their area and report nonnative, or invasive ones.

The app takes you through series of descriptors, like leaf shape and leaf arrangement.

“And then it will ask if the leaves are smooth or do they have little teeth or spines on them or hairs,” Graziano says.

Finally, it asks about flower color and flower arrangement.

“And you end up with what type of species it is. So, we end up with a couple of different options and we can pick bird vetch from that,” Graziano says as an example.

If you do come across an invasive plant like bird vetch, which has invaded Alaska’s interior, you can send in a report with a photo, description and location directly from your phone.

“And then a message actually goes to me,” Graziano said.

If the plant is a serious threat and on public property, Graziano would contact a local land manager to remove it. Western Alaska is still largely free of invasive species, and Graziano hopes this app helps keep it that way.

“That’s really the key to invasive species management—is getting on it early,” Graziano said.

Ultimately, that’s what all these apps are hoping to do. Climate change is already in full force in western Alaska, but locals can now help document those changes and, with the help of their smartphones, be more aware of what’s to come.

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Emily Russell is the voice of Alaska morning news as Alaska Public Media’s Morning News Host and Producer. Originally from the Adirondacks in upstate New York, Emily moved to Alaska in 2012. She skied her way through three winters in Fairbanks, earning her Master’s degree in Northern Studies from UAF. Emily’s career in radio started in Nome in 2015, reporting for KNOM on everything from subsistence whale harvests to housing shortages in Native villages. She then worked for KCAW in Sitka, finally seeing what all the fuss with Southeast, Alaska was all about. Back on the road system, Emily is looking forward to driving her Subaru around the region to hike, hunt, fish and pick as many berries as possible. When she’s not talking into the mic in the morning, Emily can be found reporting from the peaks above Anchorage to the rivers around Southcentral.

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