Among all of the exciting opportunities the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History offers its volunteers, the newest is NOAA’s Phytoplankton Monitoring Network program. Fundamentally, this plankton monitoring program allows community scientists to help identify and track harmful algal blooms (HABs). HABs can have adverse effects on human health as well as marine ecosystems, so the work of these community scientists is vitally important.
Plankton monitoring is broken down into two major steps. First, volunteers make their way down to the site where they’ll be collecting their water sample, usually off of a pier or wharf. The community scientists then collect data on the weather and water itself, including wind speed, salinity level, turbidity, air and water temperature. It is of utmost important to constantly track environmental data at these sites over time in order to pinpoint the conditions under which certain phytoplankton may thrive. Once the weather and water data are collected, volunteers use a plankton net to collect a seawater sample containing thousands of tiny plankton.
The second major component of the program takes place back at the museum. Here, the real fun begins. Plankton monitors will prepare water samples on slides to be viewed under a microscope. These slides contain a grid, so the volunteers can scan square by square to spot the plankton. Then they use a photo guide to identify species. Each type of plankton is recorded on a datasheet along with its abundance (high, medium, low). This program focuses on identifying “target” plankton, those that are generally responsible for HABs.
Once all plankton are accounted for, the community scientists enter their data online, where they are compiled into a public database. Not only do these data help draw attention to HABs, but because all of the information is public it could potentially help scientists make observations and study trends in the data. It is rewarding to watch volunteers participate in hand-on scientific work and developing their skills, whether it be a student with a career in a STEM field ahead of them, or a retiree adopting the role of scientist for the first time in their life. When the data from our small but committed group of volunteers combines with data from other community scientists around the country it illustrates the huge impact that we can make together.