Many outdoor enthusiasts live to pursue sports in far-flung regions. Many scientists need samples and data from those same hard-to-reach places. Enter National Geographic Emerging Explorer and conservationist Gregg Treinish, who's bringing the two worlds together in the name of science.
Gregg Treinish founded Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation, a nonprofit organization connecting outdoor adventurers with scientists in need of data from the field. He also organizes his own expeditions, contributing to research on wildlife-human interaction, fragmented habitats, and threatened species.
To many, Gregg Treinish's life seemed like a dream. In 2004 he hiked the entire Appalachian Trail. Next he spent two years traversing 7,800 miles of rugged Andes Mountains terrain. Yet along the way, the most challenging crossroad he confronted was in his own mind. Was this all just self-indulgent adventure for adventure's sake? How could he turn it into something more purposeful and beneficial to the world? "I decided to pursue a biology degree, which led to fieldwork studying everything from endangered sturgeon and wolverines to spotted owls, lynx, and bears. I still got to hike and explore, but doing it to make a positive difference felt more fulfilling," he remembers.
Fieldwork also highlighted an obvious, yet unmet, need to Treinish. Many outdoor enthusiasts live to explore far-flung regions, yet feel guilty and selfish coming home with nothing but personal highs. Meanwhile, scientists desperately need samples, photographs, data, and observations from places too difficult to reach on their shrinking budgets. Why not bring the two worlds together?
Treinish founded Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation (ASC) to build a bridge between the scientific and outdoor communities. Adventure athletes contact the organization and volunteer to collect data on their travels. ASC matches them with researchers who need help getting expensive, time-consuming, hard-to-reach information. More than a hundred scientific organizations and a thousand adventurers have already participated. But Treinish notes that extreme athletes are only part of his volunteer universe. "We've worked with school kids, teachers, military veterans, and families on vacation. No matter what their skill level in science or the outdoors, they can make a valuable contribution."
ASC mountain climbers discovered Earth's highest known plant life on Mount Everest, bringing back samples that researchers are using to help farmers grow crops in extreme conditions. Kayakers sampled waters north of Seattle for harmful algal blooms. Continental Divide Trail thru-hikers collected grizzly bear DNA to help researchers understand how the animals move between protected areas. Hundreds of roadkill observations from bikers identified hotspots of risk for animals. Hikers collected data on pikas, a key indicator species for climate change, and helped scientists learn about the Olympic Peninula's pine martens, whose numbers have plummeted in recent years. An adventurer making first descents in remote Hawaiian canyons helped a biologist search for new plant species. Rowers returned from the Arctic Ocean bearing plankton samples. Skiers checked glaciers for ice worms to better understand how organisms survive in unforgiving environments.
"The possibilities are endless," says Treinish. "We can mobilize lots of people and get to the most remote corners of the globe. We will work with any government, university, or corporate or independent scientist who uses the data for conservation. As the popularity of 'citizen science' grows, I predict this will be one of the main ways this kind of information is collected around the world."
Treinish also leads his own research expeditions to remote corners of the world. In 2013, he traveled to Mongolia, gathering data on wolverines as well as about 20 other species. His team traversed a high-mountain route through avalanche terrain on skis, crossed several frozen rivers, and replenished backpacks with supplies brought in by reindeer. "Mongolia is considered one of the world's most rapidly expanding economies," he explains. "Mining and other development is soaring and will increasingly affect rich biodiversity in the far north. We completed a wildlife survey of that region, successfully collected DNA from living wolverines, and discovered snow leopard tracks in an area where they were thought to be locally extinct." Although able to survive the coldest, harshest conditions on Earth, wolverines have been brought to the brink of extinction by global warming, trapping, and habitat loss in the lower 48. "They are a perfect example of the power human beings have to change ecosystems," Treinish says. "I hope the data we collected will provide Mongolians a better sense of what they have, inform future research, and explore economic incentives such as ecotourism that can help preserve this incredible habitat.
"Adventurers tell me these chances to give back have changed their whole perspective. Now, being the strongest or summiting the coolest peak isn't what's important. Trying to contribute and make a difference is what matters. And there's so much more we can do."