Trekking for Science: Adventure Beyond Adventure's Sake

Explorers helping scientists gather hard to find data.

Are these backpackers exploring for science? They could with the help of ASC. (Photo: Ali Jarekji/Reuters)
A six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon writes about all things ocean.

In the course of humankind’s global wanderings—whether in search of new lands or gold— there have been a couple of historical cycles during which science has prevailed over more material seeking.

The early 21st century is one of those times. Already deep into the information age, what we want to know today about the future are things like where will new energy come from, what can we continue to learn from deep space and deep ocean, and how the hell are we going to clean up the variety of messes we’ve created in the preceding 2000 years?

A fine example of this transition is in my post from two weeks ago about the new class of Emerging Explorers named recently by the National Geographic Society. Among the 11 men and women in their twenties and thirties, there wasn’t a mountain climber or North Pole trekker; instead they included molecular engineers, agroecologists, and biotech entrepreneurs.

Along the same lines, a six-month-old non-profit group, Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation, is attempting to make sure that any adventurer headed into the field goes armed with some kind of scientific mission, big or small. The Bozeman-based group also wants to make sure that whenever a scientific team goes into the field, it can help with the matchmaking—to climb higher, dive deeper, walk further—if the team needs to take along an accomplished adventurer.

In a ClimateWire/New York Times post, the group’s founder, Gregg Treinish—who, with partner Deia Schlosberg, walked the length of the Andes Mountains over the course of a couple years, from 2006 to 2008—admits to feeling “selfish” at the end of that expedition for not doing more “for the planet and people.”

It’s my experience too, after a couple of decades exploring the planet’s ocean and coastlines, that adventure for adventure’s sake just doesn’t cut it today. Climbing, or crossing, something “just because it’s there” is very, very old school. Today if you you’re going “out there,” I think you are obligated to come home with more than frostbite or some unique collectibles. Whether by contributing to science, or somehow trying to link the planet’s growing oneness by sharing stories of environmental ills or solutions, it is imperative to make explorations about something bigger than the self. (Full disclosure: I am an ASC board member.)

The goal of the ASC, says Treinish, is to identify and recruit hikers, bikers, climbers, and other athletes headed into the field to help scientists by collecting valuable—and hard-to-access—data from some of the planet’s most remote ecosystems.

The novel notion is off to a good start, having already married a handful of expeditions with scientific goals:

  1. In June, climbing brothers Willie and Damian Benegas delivered samples of the highest living plant life collected from the flanks of Mt. Everest (at 22,300 feet) to researchers at Montana State University and the U.S. Geological Survey. One goal of the researchers is to ponder how food can be grown as the planet’s climate changes. The brothers also brought back rock samples so that scientists can study microbes growing on them and the impact of high levels of UV radiation.
  2. Another group of trekkers has begun research in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, in partnership with the Center for Conservation Biology, focused on ivory forensics as a way to help stop the illegal ivory trade. The work is not always glamorous: This particular assignment includes collecting elephant dung from five focus areas across the country.
  3. The ASC has organized 22 groups of hikers planning to hike the Pacific Crest Trail stretching from California into Oregon, asking them to collect data on the Pika, a small, hard-to-spot mammal regarded as an “indicator species” for a changing climate.
  4. The group is actively looking for adventurers to help gather sightings of ice worms on glaciers in the Pacific Northwest, track the movements of grizzly bears in and around Yellowstone National Park, and catalog the spread of an invasive plant—garlic mustard—throughout Europe, Australia, Asia, and North America.

Anyone collecting data on behalf of the ASC goes out armed with strict marching orders; the project's organized from the start with an eye on providing good science, not just collecting stuff. Before the Benegas brothers’ climbed Everest, for example, they were trained to collect plant samples by Montana State University microbial ecologist Tim McDermott and USGS microbiologist Rusty Rodriguez. The Pika work is part of a larger effort overseen by the nonprofit, Bozeman-based Craighead Institute.

Beth Holland, a biogeochemist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, is a science advisor and board member. She sees the linkage between scientists and adventurers as “a great way to build bridges” between the two. “There is so much about science that can seem to happen in an ivory tower,” she says.

Anyone with an idea for linking more adventurers and scientists should get in touch with Treinish, who says interest in the concept has been “overwhelming.” Now he hopes money—from the outdoor, environmental, and scientific communities—will trickle in to help finance new technologies and collecting.

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