How to Save the Environment While Getting Outdoors


For people wanting to help preserve the environment, the wild world of citizen science is a good place to start.

It’s pouring rain when I arrive at the newly opened École d’art de Sutton in Quebec’s Brome–Missisquoi region, about 110 km southeast of Montreal along a river in the wooded foothills of Mont Sutton. I’m here to attend an educational workshop about benthic macroinvertebrates, the spineless insects and crustaceans that live in riverbeds. Ecologist and geographer Isabelle Grégoire is setting up her learning material on a long table made out of a tree trunk: a microscope, laminated visual identification aids and a leather case containing vials full of 70% alcohol preserving various specimens. As I peruse a diagram about water pollution, 11–year–old Charlotte Lavigne–Bernard (daughter of the school’s founder, Anne–Marie Lavigne) is busy adjusting the microscope for a close–up look at scarlet beebalm flower petals.

Though Grégoire hosts monthly workshops open to all ages, today’s is held with a group of seven– to 12–year–old girls participating in a week–long day camp. They’ll learn about the important role these overlooked but essential critters play in maintaining the health of waterways, and they’ve invited me along for the bug–filled ride. As the girls peruse the laid–out learning material, Grégoire smiles at their excitement. She tells me that educating people about the natural world is one of the most viable paths to sparking interest in environmental protection, and her workshops have gained popularity in recent years. Experiences like these that transmit knowledge and passion for the environment, especially with the next generation, are an important first step in citizen science. It’s the perfect match for then heading out to gather the masses of data that contribute to scientific knowledge, which has been made easier in recent years with the rise of various nature tracking apps.

August 21, 2020
An illustration of a group of people discovering things in the river

As our educator speaks, some girls marvel at the mouths, abdomens and hairy legs of crayfish and caddish fly larvae they’re inspecting through magnifying glasses, while others jot things down in Field Notes notebooks. Grégoire passes around her vials as she explains how the various species help clean rivers by consuming organic matter that ends up in the water. She takes every opportunity to share scientific information, making it relatable and easy to understand. Grégoire explains how caddisfly larvae make sheaths by binding bits of riverbed matter together with a sticky substance they secrete to hold on to rocks against the river’s current. Then, when she spots long bamboo–like stalks of Japanese knotweed that the girls are carving into musical instruments in another workshop, her face lights up. She tells us how this invasive species takes over marshes and riverbanks, that “it’s useless for all animals except humans, so using it like this can turn a dangerous plant into a beautiful one.”

After an hour and a half of creepy crawly close–ups and anatomy lessons, we don our raincoats and head to the river: a rainbow–coloured waterproof crew equipped with buckets, plastic pill bottles, scrapers and nets. As we wade in, Grégoire quickly draws our attention to the water’s murky colour and the Japanese knotweed growing along the bank, pointing out how little it helps fight erosion. Then, she starts turning over rocks and we all follow suit. I pick up a slick stone and quickly spot a caddisfly larva sitting pretty in its cozy sheath, as the girls gather dragonfly nymphs and crawling water beetles. They excitedly but carefully place the specimens they find in water–filled pill bottles before handing them over to me for safe keeping. After 30 minutes of finding insects in the rain, we turn back. My raincoat’s pockets are packed with small bottles full of invertebrates that these eager kids are going to inspect under the microscope.

Citizen Science Projects in Canada

Apps, programs and online databases are helping people across the country build shared environmental knowledge.

A group of children participating in Nature Kids BC's program on pollination
   Photo: Louise Pedersen
  • Pollinator Citizen Science —

    Through this program from Nature Kids B.C., tots in over 20 British Columbia communities are getting acquainted with the great outdoors to collect data about the bees, wasps and butterflies that flit through their towns’ greenspaces and backyards, leading to a better understanding of population variations from year to year.

  • Alberta Plant Watch —

    When it comes to the province’s blooms, timing is everything. Along with being an indicator of climate change, tracking annual blossoming times with this program helps predict forest fire periods and gives farmers insight into when to treat crops against insect pests.

A little brown bird with pointy head feathers and a red beak
   Photo: Kerrie Wilcox
  • Birds Canada —

    Bird lovers collect their avian know–how with this country–wide organization that partners with many programs. For example, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland Breeding Bird Atlases map the distribution and abundance of species throughout provinces, while Project FeederWatch monitors backyard birds during the winter.

  • Go Wild Manitoba! —

    Manitobans can step out into nature and monitor a huge range of flora and fauna using this app, on public land and their own property. Nearly everything gets a sightings category, from chicory to snapping turtles and even the odd polar bear.

The tide washing all of the capelin up onto the beach
   Photo: Stephanie Nicholl
  • eCapelin —

    Capelin is an abundant small fish in the smelt family that’s an important food source for larger fish, birds and mammals. Scientists need help tracking their spawning habitats through August, mostly along the St. Lawrence and in the Atlantic provinces, and you can submit sightings online via the eCapelin website.

  • IceWatch —

    Figuring out how long bodies of water stay frozen is a big part of identifying ecological shifts, and the IceWatch network compiles data from all provinces and territories, sometimes going back 120 years. Have your eye on a freezing lake in the Yukon or river in PEI? There’s an app for that.