From searching for invertebrates to measuring wind speed, everyone can gain new knowledge and skills and play their part in protecting the natural environment. This is the philosophy of Open Air Laboratories (OPAL), a project based in England that encourages the public to explore their surroundings, record their findings, and submit their results to the OPAL national database making their contribution available to scientists and others involved in environmental science and policy.
OPAL has created six surveys that the public can use to collect data and all are important areas of research:
Each one of these surveys has been designed so that anyone can use them – no specialist knowledge is needed to take part and equipment is either provided or is easy to make or find. The instructions are simple to follow and each survey contains a ‘workbook’ for recording results. Once people have completed their survey, they upload their results onto the OPAL website or send them by post.
The surveys have allowed data to be gathered from all over England, something which scientists would not usually have the time or capacity to do. Data can also be collected from areas which are not normally accessible to scientists such as private gardens – a habitat which is vital for biodiversity in urban areas.
The latest survey, launched in June 2011, is called OPAL Bugs Count. This survey invites people to look for the invertebrates or ‘bugs’ around the buildings where they live, work and go to school and record what they find and where. The survey also asks people to look for six keys species on which important information is needed to understand their distribution and how this is changing.
So far the amount of data collected has been phenomenal! Over 17,500 OPAL surveys have been completed to date. Through the OPAL Soil and Earthworm Survey, over 8000 earthworms have been identified and patterns of distribution are being investigated . The OPAL Biodiversity Survey has meant comparisons between invertebrate numbers in urban and rural hedges can be made. Results from the OPAL Water Survey are revealing the general good health of ponds and those that are suffering from pollution, including some from heavy metal contamination. These are just a few examples of the wealth of information about England’s environment that has been found through OPAL
Collecting data is a vital part of the OPAL programme however it is also very important that people have the knowledge and skills required to record wildlife. OPAL has developed an online education programme that helps to increase understanding of their environment and illustrate how humans affect it and how it affects us. OPAL scientists work directly with communities to carry out field surveys, run workshops and encourage people to take their interest further by joining local societies and groups. OPAL has a schools programme that not only gives children the opportunity to partake in surveys but also educates teachers on wildlife identification and survey techniques.
We aim to remove some of the barriers that prevent people from getting involved in environmental issues by giving people the confidence to start recording and measuring, understanding and enjoying the natural world around them, something which is so vital if we are to protect England’s environment.
About the Author: Laura Hill is the OPAL Coordinator, based at Imperial College London. Laura works within the OPAL Management team who oversee the work of OPAL’s 14 partner institutions.