Photo by Nail Gilfanov on Unsplash.

By Benjamin Phillips, Katherine Burgess, Cheryl Willis, and Kevin Gaston.

Read the full paper here.

Being outdoors and interacting with nature can benefit our health and happiness. But what we do outside may also affect other species, for example, if our activities disturb wildlife. It is therefore important to understand how, and how much, people are interacting with nature. To find out about this, scientists have often asked people directly using questionnaire surveys. These kinds of surveys are expensive and take a lot of time to conduct. The internet, however, provides many new opportunities to learn about how people interact with nature. For example, people’s online searches about nature and the outdoors might tell us about what they do in real life. For example, a person searching on Google about camping is likely to go camping soon, or to have been recently.

We used an online tool (‘Google Trends’), which provides information about the frequency of online Google searches for specified words or phrases. We explored how the frequencies of searches for words and phrases relating to outdoor places (e.g. “beach”, “park”, “woodland”) and activities (e.g. “hiking”, “fishing”, “encouraging wildlife”) have changed over time. We looked back from 2009, including during the COVID-19 pandemic. We then compared these trends to those from ‘survey data’ (from questionnaires, asking people about how, and how much, they visit these places and participate in these outdoor activities) and ‘mobility data’ (from mobile phone GPS data, telling us how the average amount of time that people spend in outdoor nature is changing). We focused on England, which is one of the only countries that has such survey data.

We found that:

  1. All evidence shows a general increase in public engagement with nature since 2009, and a more substantial increase during, or following, the initial national ‘lockdown’ period of the COVID-19 pandemic in England.
  2. The frequency of searches increased for many outdoor places (e.g. woodlands), exercise activities (e.g. walking, running, and hiking), and explicitly nature-based activities (e.g. fishing, wild swimming, and encouraging wildlife).
  3. Volumes of Google searches more closely mirrored longer-term (10-year) trends from survey data, than more subtle, shorter-term changes during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Our findings show that Google Trends provides valuable information about how people are interacting with nature. This may be particularly useful for the many countries that have not been collecting long-term survey data about public engagement with nature.