NASA has invited citizen scientists to help track mosquitoes to create new forecast models that can predict the spread of diseases like Zika, West Nile Virus and malaria.
People can help track mosquitoes by downloading an app called GLOBE Observer, and then collect data over the summer using the Mosquito Habitat Mapper tool in the app.
The app guides users through the process of identifying and eliminating mosquito breeding sites.
“We do not have enough information on the geographic distribution of mosquito and time-variation in their populations. If a lot of people participated in this citizen science initiative worldwide, it will help fill in gaps and that would help our work,” said Assaf Anyamba, a scientist from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in the US.
From 2017 to 2018, researchers studied Western Europe, a place not typically known for mosquito disease outbreaks.
The teams blended the citizen science data with NASA satellite observations of land surface temperatures, humidity, soil moisture, elevation, vegetation and precipitation.
The data was then used to create an interactive, open-source map on Google Earth Engine to improve prediction models for disease-carrying mosquitoes. The work is ongoing.
Early results showed that vegetation, humidity and soil moisture made it easier for mosquitoes to thrive during the summer months. During the winter, elevation played a stronger role in creating mosquito-friendly habitats.
The lower the altitude, the higher the number of mosquitoes. One challenge with the study was that the citizen science data was concentrated in populated areas; and as a result, it was skewing some of the mosquito results, said Sara Lubkin, from NASA.
“Knowing the mosquito species and their approximate populations at a given time provides useful information on the potential of occurrence of a particular pathogen, or disease transmission,” said Anyamba.
Different environmental conditions are suitable for certain types of disease-carrying mosquitoes.
Every summer, hot, humid conditions drive up mosquito populations. Since there are plenty of wet areas to live and breed, mosquitoes tend to stay in one area. However, when conditions become hot and dry, mosquitoes migrate to more suitable habitats.
Satellites can detect how wet or how dry an area is, and that information helps determine what types of mosquitoes and disease can move through an environment.
Warmer temperatures excite some mosquito species, causing them to bite more people. Also, certain high temperature thresholds can reduce the amount of time it takes for mosquitoes to mature from larvae to adults leading to doubling mosquito populations over an average year.
Mosquitoes cannot travel far on their own. Instead, they have to hitch a ride on people and animals to travel any significant distance.
If a mosquito is a type that carries and spreads diseases, then the disease can move into new areas, as occurred in Western Europe.