LEO program launches new app connecting observers, experts

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Last week at the Dena’ina Convention Center in Anchorage high-level EPA officials presented an award to the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium for its Local Environmental Observer, or LEO program.

LEO managers used the occasion to launch a new app for the LEO website.

Moses Tcharinikoff is a geographer for the LEO network. He says some twenty thousand people have visited the LEO website’s interactive map over the past few years. The map is linked to photos, videos, and short reports on unusual or unique environmental events.

“It could be weather-related, erosion, for example or invasive species from large animals to insects, for example,” Tcharinikoff said.

Local environmental observers have been using computers to post data. LEO program director Mike Brubaker says the new app allows them to post by smart-phone and automatically adds GPS and time data. Experts at federal, state, or tribal agencies or in academia can then comment or answer questions:

“So what we’ve tried to do is build a system that is transparent and responsive and actually connects people with people who are topic experts,” Brubaker said.

Brubaker says, LEO can help bring attention to important issues:

“If someone posted in one community they may find out quickly that it’s not just themselves but there’s someone upstream, downstream, up-coast, down-coast, somewhere else who may be experiencing the same thing,” Brubaker said. “Then you’ve got not just an isolated event. You have a broader event happening, which can help garner resources and develop partnerships, and then you can hopefully lead to answers.”

LEO can also help people prepare for or adapt to climate change effects. For instance, Brubaker says Alaska Department of Fish and Game veterinarians have documented the first sightings of mule deer in Interior Alaska. He says a new food source is welcome, but mule deer can also carry winter ticks, which often suck the life out of their host as they feed on its blood:

“If winter tick is introduced to our moose population or our caribou population it has implications for that wildlife resource, and for subsistence, and maybe even other species,” Brubaker said. “So when we hear something like that, we put out an alert to the network and ask people and give them guidance on how they can observe for emerging threats.”

The Environmental Protection Agency is a major funder of LEO. EPA region ten administrator Dennis McClaren presented ANTHC with an award for innovation, saying they’re breaking new ground in citizen science:

“And we know people back in DC are looking at this. We know that it’s really an innovation that’s going to take off like crazy,” McClaren said.

LEO is already being used as a model by two committees of the 8-nation Arctic Council. They’re creating a circumpolar local environmental observer network called CLEO.

The Finnish ministry of environment plans to host CLEO training at the Sami Cultural Center of Finland. And U.S. regulators are working with Canadians to expand CLEO across North America.

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Joaqlin Estus is a reporter at KNBA in Anchorage.

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