Want to be a citizen Earth scientist? Join GLOBE Observer

Clouds are more than water and a muse. They play an important role in regulating the temperature of the planet. Now NASA’s new GLOBE Observer app makes it easy for us all to be guardians of the planet.


Data collected by the users of NASA’s GLOBE Observer app gives climate scientists a more holistic view of the the changing planetary environment. (Image: GLOBE Programme)

Did you spot a dramatic and surfable Morning Glory this morning? Has your day been filled with cumulus, nimbostratus or stratocumulus? These are just a few of the 10 basic types of cloud. Depending on whether they are clumps or layers or streaks, if they’re low, mid-level or high, clouds fit into different species as well.

All of them are water – tiny droplets in low clouds and ice crystals in high. And yet, they have captured the imagination of artists and been the muse to poets. They have helped adults while away the day and inspired children with crayons.

They also play an important role in controlling the temperature of the planet and its climate system by reflecting sunlight back into space or trapping heat coming from the surface in the atmosphere. “Clouds are one of the most important factors in understanding how climate is changing now and how it’s going to change in the future,” says Holli Rieneek Kohl, an education and outreach officer at NASA.

She is also the NASA lead in its GLOBE Observer programme. NASA’s Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE) is a two decade-old science and education programme. Schools and students in 110 countries participate through observations of their local environment. Global data is collated and their observations are used to give a clearer view of the global environment.

The app

It is now easer to join thousands of global citizen scientists. All you need is a smartphone, the great outdoors and NASA’s new GLOBE Observer app. South African citizen scientists can join the GLOBE community by downloading the app. They will join a global community building a cache of scientific data about local environmental conditions. For South Africans it is a continuation of the country’s storied involvement with NASA. A history that goes back to the agency’s moon landing expeditions. The GLOBE Observer app ties in with South African National Space Agency (SANSA) mandate to promote awareness and an interest in science, engineering and technology. The app allows the programme to grow beyond the classroom and allows anyone anywhere to become a planetary guardian.


The app is available as a free download (Image: GLOBE Programme)

South Africa has felt the effects of climate change recently with unprecedented drought and unseasonal temperatures. NASA is encouraging citizens around the world to participate in its programme to track these global climate changes by downloading the app and sharing their data with a global audience.

For now the app allows users to collect photographs of clouds, which are sent to NASA to form a web of global climate data. A secondary benefit is, NASA hopes, a public more aware of the world outside their homes. The information collected is added to satellite-generated information to create a more holistic data archive.

Kohl explains: “NASA studies clouds from satellites that provide either a top view or a vertical slice of the clouds. The ground-up view from citizen scientists is valuable in validating and understanding the satellite observations. It also provides a more complete picture of clouds around the world.”

For scientists data is everything, but collecting that data is rarely cheap or easy, especially when the whole world is your laboratory. For NASA’s climate scientists, ground measurements are critical to confirm their measurements taken from space.

Erika Podest, a NASA Earth scientist based at its world famous Jet Propulsion Laboratory, explains: “There are some places in the world where we have no ground data, so citizen scientists can greatly contribute to advancing our knowledge of this important part of the Earth system.”

Collected data is automatically sent to the GLOBE data and information centre, where it is available to scientists and students studying the planet. But NASA, and Kohl, want to encourage app users to also interact with other users around the globe.

Download the app, create an account, follow the tutorial and you are ready to start making observations. Use the drop down menu to record atmospheric conditions – whether the sky is clear, cloudy or obscured by things such as rain, fog or dust – then classify the clouds. The app auto-fills local time and date and co-ordinates.

The app will help users to align their camera along compass points and how to best tilt your phone to capture most of the sky. You need a smartphone, but an internet connection is not necessary while taking pictures of clouds. You can submit your data once you have a connection.