Citizen Scientists Help Track Climate Change

by kespeland on April 6, 2009


“It means the study of earth and the changing of seasons.”

Field Elementary students show where their butterfly garden will be.

Field Elementary students show where their butterfly garden will be.

That’s eight year old Claire, with a pretty good definition of phenology….which is basically the study of recurring plant and animal life cycle events. Claire is one of a class full of young phenologists at Field Elementary in Louisville. They’re arrayed in the school yard in the shape of a butterfly— the shape their garden will take when they break ground this spring. They’ll plant mostly milkweed to attract monarch butterflies. And then… they’ll keep watch.

“We’ll visit the garden and take pictures of it and draw and write about what we see, and then we’ll take it home and show our family, and they’ll be really impressed.”

Seven year old Henry might not understand this yet, but his observations will be appreciated far beyond the refrigerator door. Teacher Lisa Downs says they’ll log their data with Journey North, which maintains a web site of global observations of wildlife migration and seasonal changes.

Students in Lisa Downs' class on the site where their butterfly garden will be.

Students in Lisa Downs' class on the site where their butterfly garden will be.

“The children are empowered to post their information on the internet, and people from around the world can look at the sightings they’ve posted,” says Downs.

They’ll note the first milkweed appearance, the first monarch, the first monarch eggs. Their sightings and those from kids throughout the country will help populate an interactive map and a searchable database.

It’s one of many similar projects helping scientists gather much more data than they could working alone. The USA National Phenology Network has just launched a major effort to recruit volunteers throughout the country to observe and record plant data. University of Wisconsin climatologist Mark Schwartz is the organization’s co-founder. He says the data will not only help scientists answer questions about the effects of climate change. It may also help them recommend ways to adapt to it.

“We’ve been starting to talk about the idea of phenology and understanding the changes as being something that we can use to start to adapt. Now, what does adapt mean? Well, first of all, you have to understand the changes you’re seeing before you can consider ways of adapting,” Schwartz says.

Schwartz has already documented some of those changes in one of his own phenological studies of lilacs.

“We see that over the last 50 years or so, from 1955 to 2002 during my study, that spring has been getting earlier at a rate of about 1 point 2 days per decade.

Schwartz relied on historical data to fill in the gaps in his own observations. It’s those kinds of long-term records climate researchers need for spotting trends. And they’ll have another opportunity to do just that as soon as volunteers can transcribe more than 6 million handwritten note cards with historic bird observations. They’re the work of some early 20th century phenologists. And they’ve been languishing in government files for nearly a decade at U.S. Geological Survey headquarters. Now, working with the National Phenology Network, the USGS has also put out the call for help re-keying the information into a giant database. Indiana University law student Benjamin Keele tries to type up a few cards every day while he has a free moment.

“It’s nice that someone who doesn’t really know much about birds or ornithology or any other scientific topic can still contribute in a way,” says Keele.

Sample card from the USGS collection

Sample card from the USGS collection

Data from the cards should give scientists insight into how birds are responding to a changing climate, and perhaps even how to help species at risk of extinction. Keele says the authors of these vintage cards couldn’t have known how important their observations would become.

“This person you know, saw a bird, wrote this little card, mailed it off to the government, and I doubt that he or she ever could have imagined that a hundred years later, people would be keying them into a computer database that will be used to make projections about climate change and things like that.”

Perhaps a hundred years from now, researchers will appreciate the work of thousands of others like Keele who are filling in just one tiny piece of the picture at their computers and in their backyards.

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{ 1 comment }

Dorothy F. Young April 12, 2009 at 9:49 pm

This is extremely important and I have been keeping track of birds in my backyard for over 30 years. It is of great interest to see how the same birds return within a certain time frame year after year, . From a scientific point of view , it will help the scientists keep us informed as to what we can do to help in any way possible.

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