Most hikers on the Reflection Lakes trail have their cameras pointed at Mount Rainier; Karen Sy, however, had her back to the imposing mountain. Instead, she examined a patch of spindly, tufted plants that look like Dr. Seuss’s truffula trees. In any case, Rainier looked hazy; choking wildfire smoke had pushed air quality readings into the “unhealthy” range for days. Luckily, Sy had come prepared with an N-95 respirator mask, so she could concentrate on writing down her observations: Western anemones, in their fruiting stage—typical for mid-August.
She’d braved the smoky weather for MeadoWatch, a program that enlists volunteers to collect wildflower data on hikes at Mount Rainier National Park. Three volunteers at a different plot said that they find the program rewarding, in part because it provides an opportunity to inject much-needed scientific data into political discussions about climate change. Rather than agonizing over struggling animal species and changing ecosystems, recording observations feels like a proactive step to stave off climate dread.
The program also has the power to expand volunteers’ ideas of who can be a scientist. Joshua Jenkins, MeadoWatch’s program management intern, is a prime example: When the lead researcher Janneke Hille Ris Lambers hired him, he was the first intern on the project who didn’t have a science background. “Janneke talks about reimagining who can be a scientist, and I think that message is really powerful,” he said.