Adrian Higgins - Citizen Scientists Can Help Study Climate Change in Back Yards

A Mormon fritillary butterfly on aspen fleabane. Researchers fear climate change will upset the balance between flowers and pollinators and have asked gardeners for help.
A Mormon fritillary butterfly on aspen fleabane. Researchers fear climate change will upset the balance between flowers and pollinators and have asked gardeners for help. (By David Inouye)
By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, January 29, 2009

Even with the ground frozen and the fish pond glazed this month, there are signs of life.

The first brave blossoms of winter jasmine are shivering in freezing temperatures. Daffodil shoots are rising through the rock-hard soil, and pearl-like snowdrops are just apparent through the golden and lifeless foliage of the hakone grass. (I must cut that back.)

Gardeners notice these seasonal progressions even in the supposed dead of winter, and for that reason, a U.S. Geological Survey ecologist named Jake Weltzin wants to tap into the vast reservoir of knowledge that exists in America's back yards.

"I would like to have 40,000 plant observers," said Weltzin, who is based at the University of Arizona at Tucson and is executive director of an organization called the USA National Phenology Network. Phenology is a bloodless scientific term for the miracles that occur every day in the garden: the morning in March a flock of cedar waxwings alights on the holly bushes, the first unfurling of the dogwood flower, the day the hummingbirds return, or the hour the frog lays her eggs. These life cycle events combine to form the tapestry of the natural world, and the more plants we use in the garden and the more wildlife we attract, the richer the experience.

Weltzin and his colleagues have a more prosaic reason to call on gardeners and backyard naturalists to log these phenomena: They are starting a 30-year project to gauge how climate change is affecting the world around us.

"Citizen scientists" are vital to the success of the program "to get the density of observations we need," he said.

The network has established a plant phenology program and Web site ( that is about to be revamped for the 2009 season to be more user-friendly while refining the program's reporting protocols. After the late-winter redesign of the Web site, participants will be able to record their observations at three levels: as a novice under Project BudBurst, or at an intermediate or more skilled scientific level. Participants are asked to observe the life cycles of plants chosen from a list of 70 to 203 garden plants, shade trees, wildflowers and weeds. No garden? No problem. Trails, parks and public woodlands all offer opportunities for recording information.

Next year, the network hopes to launch a similar site for recording wildlife and is working to nail down 120 animal species for people to observe and record, 20 each among mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, aquatic species and insects.

The unwitting father of this endeavor died 147 years ago. Henry David Thoreau, abolitionist, philosopher and naturalist, spent six years recording the flowering dates of 500 plant species of his native Concord, Mass., with the aim of producing a calendar based on a plant's first flowering.

Such was the scale of his task, and his legendary status as a naturalist, that his work inspired others in Concord to follow suit. Alfred Hosmer, a shopkeeper and amateur botanist, recorded the flowering times in various habitats of 700 species and varieties between 1878 and 1902. And from 1963 to 1993, Pennie Logemann, a landscape designer in Concord, methodically logged the bloom patterns of 250 plants. "I especially loved wildflowers," the now-retired Logemann said in an interview, "and more of my work was done with wildflowers than cultivated plants." She added, "I just noticed from year to year that something was going on."

All three sets of records have begun to give scientists a painfully clear picture of how global warming has affected our flora and fauna. Researchers at Harvard and Boston universities went back to Concord between 2003 and 2006 to record flowering data for 500 species (60 percent of Concord's green spaces have remained intact since Thoreau's day). They determined that temperatures have risen nearly 4 degrees in the past 150 years, that flowers now open a week earlier on average and that some plants are far better equipped to deal with this phenomenon than others. More than 60 percent of the plants Thoreau tracked either have gone extinct locally or are on the brink of disappearance.

"Orchids have declined, as have lilies and gentians; these are some of the most charismatic plants," said Abraham Miller-Rushing, one of the researchers and coordinator of the impending wildlife project.

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