How Pokemon Inspired A Citizen Science Project To Monitor Tiny Streams

Apr 20, 2018
Originally published on April 20, 2018 8:52 am

The spring thaw is upon us, and parched western states will be watching closely as snows melt and rivers rise. Fancy satellites monitor water levels in the biggest rivers, but they don't spot the smaller streams and waterways that feed into them. Now, some Colorado scientists have hit on a new way of tracking those smaller streams — inspired, by Pokemon.

Before we get to Pokemon, let's start with the problem. And to understand the problem, we have to start on the side of a canyon road outside Fort Collins, Colo. Hydrologists Stephanie Kampf and Kira Puntenney-Desmond, both with Colorado State University, pull over to take a look at a stream.

"This one's fascinating," says Puntenney-Desmond, pointing to a stream that, from afar, didn't look like much at all. "It's always worth getting out of the car because if you listen really quietly, you can hear the stream flowing."

She bolts out of the car and across the street before squealing with excitement. "It's no longer frozen! The water is actively flowing," she says.

It was barely more than a wet ditch, but it was wet.

These hydrologists are all about the underdog streams — the ones you could step across without even jumping. They say it's the little tiny streams that are really exciting and important when it comes to forecasting water supply. And they're not alone.

"I started out looking at big rivers," says Tamlin Pavelsky, a hydrologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. "But if I wanted to try to answer a lot of the questions that I had about big rivers I realized that I had to go back and look at the small streams to be able to answer them."

Pavelsky is a big river kind of guy, like wider-than-a-football-field big or see-it-from-space big. Even he says, "yes," those small-potato streams are really important, even if they're a little underwhelming in person.

"It is really unimpressive-looking in person," he says. "But if you think about the number of these streams there are across the country, it's staggering."

We have one Mississippi River, he says, but thousands — maybe millions — of tiny streams, and they're constantly turning off and on.

"For many processes, they actually dwarf something like the Mississippi in terms of their importance," he says.

But here's the thing: little streams are really difficult to track. You can't see them from satellites. They don't show up on most maps. When they do, the data are often wrong, especially after something like a wildfire or a flood.

For hydrologists like Stephanie Kampf, that was frustrating. How could they ever make water forecasts better if they didn't even know where the streams were?

But then, "Pokemon Go" entered the world, a smartphone game that led people to wander all around collecting imaginary creatures from everyday places.

"There [were] all these people walking around with mobile phones looking for Pokemons and we were trying to understand streams," says Kampf.

The hydrologists got an idea. "We thought, 'Wouldn't it be great if those people walking around were actually collecting data that would be useful?' " says Kampf.

So, they got funding from NASA and teamed up with a citizen science app called "CitSci" to start collecting those data. The project is called Stream Tracker, and they're recruiting anyone with eyeballs and legs to check in on small streams in their area and report back really basic information: Where is it? Is it flowing, dry or frozen?

Less than a year into the project, they have about 80 people of all ages — schoolkids, hikers, retirees — monitoring streams in Colorado, Utah, Ohio and Arizona. And, of course, they'll keep checking in on their own streams near Fort Collins, Colo.

While the big-river scientists work on launching satellites to keep an eye on the world's giant rivers and lakes, the best monitoring device for these little streams remains people, walking around on the ground looking for streams instead of Pokemon — especially in dry states like this one.

"This is my favorite Stream Tracker point," says Puntenney-Desmond as she approaches a stream bed winding between two houses. "It's always a surprise. Is it flowing today or is it not?"

It was dry. But other ones should be thawing, and as Desmond-Puntenney puts it, "turning on" right about now, feeding into the reservoirs and rivers that will water thirsty cities in the months to come.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, Yellowstone Public Radio in Montana, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado. You can join in on tracking streams by going to www.streamtracker.org.

Copyright 2018 KUNC. To see more, visit KUNC.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It is springtime. And in parched western states, a lot of people are watching closely as snows melt and the rivers rise. Now, satellites can monitor water levels in the biggest rivers, but they do not spot the smaller streams and waterways that feed into them. As KUNC's Rae Ellen Bichell reports, some Colorado scientists have hit on a new way of tracking those smaller streams - inspired by "Pokemon."

RAE ELLEN BICHELL, BYLINE: Before we get to "Pokemon," let's start with the problem. And to do that, we have to start here.

KIRA PUNTENNEY-DESMOND: So, Stephanie, at the next point, we'll just pull off on the right here by the mailbox.

BICHELL: Stephanie Kampf and Kira Puntenney-Desmond are both hydrologists with Colorado State University. And on one very windy cold morning, they took me through a valley in northern Colorado to check in on some of their favorite streams.

PUNTENNEY-DESMOND: Check it out.

BICHELL: Puntenney-Desmond bolted out of the car and across the street.

PUNTENNEY-DESMOND: Scurrying across.

BICHELL: She'd seen something really exciting. It was barely more than a wet ditch, but it was wet.

PUNTENNEY-DESMOND: It's no longer frozen. The water is actively flowing.

BICHELL: These hydrologists are all about the underdog streams, the ones you could step across without even jumping. They say it's the little tiny streams that are really exciting and important when it comes to forecasting water supply, even if they might look a little underwhelming.

TAMLIN PAVELSKY: It is really unimpressive-looking in person. And any one of these streams is just a really small little rivulet, really.

BICHELL: That's Tamlin Pavelsky, a hydrologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

PAVELSKY: But if you think about the number of these streams there are across the country, it's staggering.

BICHELL: Pavelsky is a big river kind of guy, like wider than a football field big or see-it-from-space big. And even he says yes, those small-potato streams are really important. We have one Mississippi River, he says, but thousands - maybe millions - of tiny streams constantly turning on and off.

PAVELSKY: And so in many ways, they actually dwarf something like the Mississippi in terms of their importance.

BICHELL: Their importance for forecasting water supply. But here's the thing - little streams are really difficult to track. You can't see them from satellites. They don't show up on most maps. When they do, the data's often wrong, especially after something like a wildfire or a flood. For hydrologists like Stephanie Kampf, that was frustrating. How could they ever make water forecasts better if they didn't even know where the streams were? And then...

(SOUNDBITE OF JASON PAIGE'S "POKEMON THEME")

JASON PAIGE: (Singing) I want to be the very best, like no one ever was.

BICHELL: ..."Pokemon Go" entered the world.

STEPHANIE KAMPF: And there are all these people walking around with mobile phones looking for Pokemons.

BICHELL: The hydrologists got an idea.

KAMPF: Wouldn't it be great if those people walking around were actually collecting data that would be useful?

BICHELL: So they got funding from NASA and teamed up with a citizen science app, the one that Kira Puntenney-Desmond has just pulled up on her phone.

PUNTENNEY-DESMOND: Stream Tracker, do-do-do-do (ph).

BICHELL: It's called Stream Tracker, and they're recruiting anyone with eyeballs, legs and smartphones to check in on small streams in their area and report back really basic information. Where is it? And is it flowing, dry or frozen?

PUNTENNEY-DESMOND: Let's see. Comment - frozen. And then we save it, and we're good to go. Cool.

BICHELL: Less than a year in, they have about 80 people of all ages - school kids, hikers, retirees - monitoring streams in Colorado, Arizona, Ohio and Utah. And, of course, they'll keep checking in on their own streams near Fort Collins, Colo., like this one.

PUNTENNEY-DESMOND: So I really enjoyed stopping here because it's always a surprise. Is it flowing today, or is it not?

BICHELL: It was dry, but other ones should be thawing, and as Desmond-Puntenney (ph) puts it, turning on right about now, feeding into the reservoirs and rivers that will water thirsty cities in the months to come. For NPR News, I'm Rae Ellen Bichell.

(SOUNDBITE OF JUNICHI MASUDA AND SHINJI MIYAZAKI'S "POKEMON, I CHOOSE YOU!")

GREENE: That story came to us from the Mountain West News Bureau. And get this - you can help track streams. Just go to www.streamtracker.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.