Conservation Spotlight

Science-bound, Adventure-driven

The exciting new face of nature conservation science

By Kristina Aluzaite

As intense morning rays light up the majestic faces and ridges of Nepal’s Khumbu valley, a group of mountaineers armed with ice gear and thick down jackets stand on a 20,000′ ice and rock giant: Lobuche East. They set up a rappel station on the edge of an ice lip below the summit, the basin below framed by legendary peaks – Everest (8,848m), Lhotse (8,516m), Makalu (8463m) and Ama Dablam (6,812m). The air is thin, but the crew is determined to accomplish their goal – to collect a series of ice and snow samples from around the Himalaya region for a climate change study. Hari fills up a Nalgene bottle full of summit ice and the team descends back to their base camp to get ready for their Lhotse summit attempt.

Image2_iceCollecting snow and ice samples off the summit of Lobuche East. Photo: (courtesy of Adventure Scientists)


Hari Mix (you should check out his research, adventures and photography) is just one among the army of professional climbers, adventurers, and world class athletes, who have become a part of the exciting citizen science initiative – Adventure Scientists (formerly known as Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation). These outdoors volunteers are serving as field scientists in various research projects, playing their part in protecting the environment. Their extraordinary skills and experience, extreme endurance, and mental strength are used by research groups across the world to collect samples for far-reaching environmental studies, including glacial ice investigations by Dr. Natalie Kehrwald. She is working to shine more light on the climate history of the Earth, and to provide important information about the current glacial melt.

Image3_mountainsClimbers descend from camp one, Mount Everest. Photo: Hari Mix (courtesy of Adventure Scientists)

Adventure Scientists

Scientific investigation and explorative adventure are akin in their purpose and nature, and not surprisingly, a child was born when they met – the Adventure Scientists. National Geographic Adventurer of the year Gregg Treinish came up with the brilliant idea during his 22-month 7,800 mile South American Andes traverse. Feeling selfish about his life of adventure and exploration solely for personal satisfaction, Gregg realized that his outdoors pursuits could play a role in helping to preserve the natural worlds he remains so passionate about.

Image4_Microplastics_AbbyAbby Barrows, lead scientist, counting microplastics particles in a sample (courtesy of Adventure Scientists)


Adventure Scientists is a nature conservation organization connecting outdoors enthusiasts, adventurers, and athletes with researchers and scientific studies. Standing proud behind their motto, Adventure with a Purpose, they recruit thousands of volunteers with specialized skills and interests to collect data in countless locations for dozens of scientific investigations from an impressive list of Universities, research centers, and conservation organizations, including: Harvard Medical School, American Prairie Reserve, Montana State University, Trent University, Stanford University, Microplastics Science and many more. Gregg and his team are working hard to provide otherwise inaccessible data to researchers in need. The results generated might have the power to aid decision making and influence policy concerning environmental and conservation efforts.

What science is being done?

The Adventure Scientists organization was established in 2011, and since then has served an impressive list of large-scale projects. Currently running projects include the Landmark, which is a wildlife data survey aimed at expanding the American Prairie Reserve;  Adventure Scientists Scat, a global microbe study to create a genetic library and uncover indicators of wildlife disease; and Roadkill Survey, which collects data about animal-vehicle collisions for monitoring animal movement that will hopefully help re-design transportation systems. Adventure Scientists are also working on a large scale Snow & Ice collections initiative, where collected ice and snow samples are used to look at glacial ice changes.

microplasticsThe global map of sampling number of sampling sites for the microplastics initiative (photo courtesy of Adventure Scientists); bubble size indicates the number of plastics per liter.


Finally, a prime example of an Adventure Scientists collaboration is the Worldwide Microplastics Initiative. This important study is helping to assess the scope and density of microplastics pollution (bits of plastic smaller than 5mm) across the world’s oceans. The plastic gets ingested and absorbed by wildlife, causing direct damage as well as making its way up the food chain, affecting even human health. Furthermore, once in the environment, microplastics “pick up” various toxins – such as DDT, BPA, and pesticides – which likewise make their way into biological systems, resulting in detrimental effects to all levels of life. Adventure Scientists found microplastic particles in the majority of their water samples across the globe (95% of samples in 2014), including in German beer (yes, that’s right – plastic particles in beer – a clear violation of Bavarian Purity Law!)

Image6_boatA long tail boat awaits travelers off the shore of Koh Lao Liang Nong. An hour-long ride on the traditional Thai watercraft is the only way to reach the island. (Photo by Dylan Jones, courtesy of Adventure Scientists)


Where do the microplastics come from? Studies indicate one of the largest sources being synthetic clothes; every time you wash your fleece jacket and other synthetic clothes, you are releasing thousands of these micro particles into global waters. Adventure Scientists are hoping that their work will lead to development of fabrics that would not shed these pollutants, or the creation of special filters in washing machines. Adventure Scientists and their collaborators are also trying to increase awareness of this alarming, yet not widely acknowledged, problem.

Given the outcomes of the ocean microplastics study, they are now expanding their survey to include fresh waters, such as their local Montana Gallatin river, among others.

Image7_riverSampling from Savage River, Denali National Park, Alaska for the Adventure Scientists Global Microplastics Initiative (Photo by Brian Luenemann, courtesy of Adventure Scientists)

Who are the scientists?

There would be no need for the data, if there were no scientists doing the research. They are the people behind the work, the source of ideas and ultimately – the results. Given the wide range of research topics, the scientists come from a diverse backgrounds and disciplines and are as inspiring and driven, as you might expect.

Abby Barrows has been the principal investigator for the Microplastics Initiative since 2012 and is an independent marine researcher working for the Marine Environmental Research Institute and Adventure Scientists. Abby is an inspiring adventurer herself, and has done many exciting studies around the globe, such as her seahorse research project in Papua New Guinea. In her efforts to combat what she describes as the “overwhelmingly huge international problem” of microplastics pollution, Abby stresses that “a very important first step is getting people to engage and feel like their contribution will contribute to finding a solution.”

Elsewhere, Snow & Ice Collections Project scientist, Dr. Natalie Kehrwald, working at University of Venice, Italy, is using the samples volunteers collect from high mountain glaciers to look at glacial ice changes, enabling her to make inferences about climate change, fresh water supplies, and their implications to human societies and policy makers.

Using radioactive isotopes Dr. Kehrwald has shown that “snow layer from 1952-58 is no longer present, suggesting that the glacier is thinning from the top down.” Read more about Dr. Kehrwald’s research here.

Image8_natalie_iceResearch Scientist Dr. Natalie Kehrwald (image taken from interview with Clif bar)

Who are the adventurers?

The pool of Adventure Scientists volunteers is as diverse and inspiring as their project list. Among the collaborating nature and outdoors enthusiasts are professional, top-of-the-game extreme mountain athletes like mountaineer Conrad Anker, snowboard freerider Jeremy Jones, and the acclaimed arctic explorer Lonnie Dupre. They have joined the ranks of ultra-runners, hikers, cyclists, kayakers, and many more – all united to pay their contribution to research and nature conservancy; to protect their home and natural playgrounds.

Image9_lisa_antarcticaLisa White collects a sample for Adventure Scientists from Mount Vinson, Antarctica (Photo by Lisa White, courtesy of Adventure Scientists).

Often outdoors sports are seen as intrinsically selfish activities, purely for participants’ enjoyment. Adventurers often feel that way too, and hence are very excited to be given the opportunity to join the Adventure Scientists projects. For example, mountaineer Lisa White from Washington has worked for the Adventure Scientists for a few years now and feels very passionately about contributing to scientific research: “I realized that by doing what I love, I can help other people. Other people whose primary focus is helping the planet. How cool is that?” Her latest contribution was for the ice and snow collection study; Lisa brought samples back from Mt Vinson, a 4,892 –meter snow giant in the Vinson Massif of Antarctica that will “tell the story of this mountain.”

jeremyjonesJeremy Jones photo by Clark Fyans, courtesy of Adventure Scientists


Another Adventure Scientists adventurer, Jeremy Jones, set out to climb and ride some of the first 21,000-foot giant descents in the Nepalese Himalayas near Mt. Everest for one of his movie series – Higher. The expedition involved weeks of approaching, acclimating and climbing, then riding 60-degree walls. On top of this expedition that pushed the limits of human endurance and his snowboarding ability, Jeremy also took on the responsibility to obtain and carry liters of snow and ice samples from high elevation for an Adventure Scientists study.

JeremyJones2Jeremy Jones digging a snow hole at around 20,000 feet after a 12-hour climbing day. Photo credit Teton Gravity Research (courtesy of Adventure Scientists)


People like Jeremy and Lisa, who embrace the outdoors and the natural world, have a visceral understanding of the need to preserve the landscape that they hold sacred. Adventure Scientists allows those who find inspiration and refuge in the outdoors a chance to express their love by using their incredible skills for larger purposes. Jeremy summed up well what motives Adventure Scientists volunteers: “without people caring about the environment and nature, it will go away. And the reality is that snowboarding will be the least of our problems, if we continue on this track.”

Future of Conservation?

Adventure Scientists are working on large scope, major-issue research projects and are determined to make real changes. “This year we have really started to focus on the projects that will have tangible conservation outcomes. We want to accelerate the timeframe, minimize the costs, and ensure that decision makers are equipped to make the best possible decisions.” says founder Gregg Treinish.

The possibilities are endless, and the passion of all collaborating parties seems infinite as well. Adventure Scientists provides an example of how we all can become a part of saving our home, and all the places we love and get inspired by. We do not have to be extreme athletes to contribute. As Treinish sums up perfectly: “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.”