No need to throw on a parka. You can help conduct research in Antarctica from the comfort of your own home.
A researcher at the University of Minnesota is asking for the public's help in carrying out the first-ever population census of Weddell seals in Antarctica.
Tracking the population numbers and the animals' location will help scientists better understand the effects that climate change and fishing might have on the species, said Michelle LaRue, the project's lead researcher. It can also help researchers better understand the animals' environment.
"Knowing how their populations are doing, where their populations are located, gives us kind of a glimpse into the health of the Southern Ocean," she said.
Project researchers finished a successful pilot program last summer after more than 5,000 volunteers helped count seals from satellite images of a smaller swath of land.
Users scan through satellite photos and search for the tiny gray seals on the stark white landscape. One easy way to find seals, LaRue said, is to scope out cracks in ice, because the seals typically access water from those spots.
Weddell seals are one of Antarctica's most well-known — and charismatic — species. Despite living in some of the harshest conditions in the world, the animals can live as long as 30 years.
LaRue said this research wouldn't be possible without using satellite images since some of the areas are so difficult to access.
"This is opening up a new way of learning about really remote places on Earth," she said.
This crowdsourced data-gathering method — commonly referred to as "citizen science" — has grown in popularity in the past decade. For example, other U researchers have asked for the public's help with categorizing galaxy images.
"Every single person who helps is very important to our research," LaRue said. "Knowing that you're a vital piece of some research that's never been done before, I'm hoping that people understand how important their involvement is. It's not trivial."
The research is funded by the National Science Foundation and is a joint effort of the University of Minnesota, University of Colorado at Boulder and other organizations.
To try your hand at the seal search, visit tinyurl.com/n3oaljb.
Haley Hansen is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.