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How Earthwatch Works

Earthwatch Expeditions
Some Earthwatch volunteers may go on an archaeological dig.
Some Earthwatch volunteers may go on an archaeological dig.
STR/AFP/Getty Images

Every year Earthwatch distributes an Expedition Guide about an inch thick that advertises current research projects and reads like a travel brochure: "snorkel and dive Thailand's amazing coral reefs," "help preserve Tuscany's rich heritage" or "witness the world's largest whale migration." While such descriptions may sound like exotic vacations, they stem from the hundreds of research proposals Earthwatch receives from scholars who need funding and help collecting data. Volunteers sign up for projects that capture their interest, pay somewhere between $395 and $4,000 to cover associated costs and get to work on their volunteer vacation.

While many people in the scientific community doubt the effectiveness of using volunteers to collect research, a study performed by the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit of Oxford University found that when volunteers received a half day of comprehensive basic training, they produced results within the range of those collected by professionals [source: Buesching]. Not only does using volunteers make it possible to conduct research on a wide scale in a time- and cost-effective way, but it also increases the public's understanding of the relevant issues.

Projects cover a diverse range of topics and accommodations run the gamut, from roughing it under the stars to lounging in luxurious hotels. Depending on the project they choose, volunteers may restore ancient artifacts by day, linger over three-course meals at night and stay in an Italian country inn. Another expedition involves helping to trap, measure and observe sea turtles while eating Mexican food and sleeping in open cabanas in your free time.

If neither of those situations sounds inviting, there's always identifying wildlife in Manhattan (taking in the sites of New York City during your downtime), helping to document the local traditions of African villages (you can tour wild-game parks on days off) or studying climate change and biodiversity in the Ecuadorian rainforest (bring your camera). You'd have a difficult time not finding anything that suits you.

Earthwatch expeditions have a good track record, too. One-third of the people volunteering each year are veterans, and several have participated in more than 50 projects. Don't be fooled by the project descriptions and the high rate of return volunteers. Research isn't focused on the fun factor.

Recently, Earthwatch volunteers have been busy on the following projects:

  • Identifying 50 new plant species in the Cameroon rainforests
  • Helping to protect orca whales in Puget Sound, Washington
  • Gathering data showing that global warming can lead to damaging insect outbreaks
  • Assisting in the creation of national parks and wildlife preserves in Vietnam, Argentina, Costa Rica, Australia, Canada and Madagascar [source: Earthwatch].

On the next page, learn how Earthwatch promotes sustainability in its own backyard.