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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Field Observations from Everyone

Air Date: Week of

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Surveying the desert. (Photo: National Phenology Network/ D. Rosemartin)

A nation of backyard naturalists observe leaves and flowers arriving early. Host Bruce Gellerman speaks with Jake Weltzin, the executive director of the USA National Phenology Network, about the role of citizen scientists in describing a changing climate.


GELLERMAN: Well, you too can follow in the footsteps of Henry David Thoreau and become a chronicler of Nature’s Notebook. The U.S.A.- National Phenology Network invites citizen-scientists to contribute their observations of changing biological activity and the group has just marked a major milestone.

Joining me is Jake Weltzin, he's a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey and the Executive Director of the U.S.-National Phenology Network. Hi Mr Weltzin!

WELTZIN: Thank you very much, it’s a pleasure!

GELLERMAN: So what’s the milestone?

WELTZIN: The milestone is a million records in our database!

GELLERMAN: A million records, meaning, your members have contributed a million observations?

WELTZIN: Yes. We opened up our interface called Nature’s Notebook, and we invite citizen-scientists and scientists, resource managers, to work together to enter their observation of leafing and flowering and bird migrations and frog activity into a database. And we now have one million records contributed by our observers across the entire nation.

GELLERMAN: So - citizen-phenologists!

A park ranger in Vermont records her observation. (Photo: National Phenology Network/ A. Miller-Rushing)

WELTZIN: Citizen-phenologists, citizen-scientists, but we’re quite proud because we have scientists and citizens working together. So what you have are people who are using the same protocol, so the data can easily be compared and everybody has this same protocol that they’re using, say, to define the leafing on a red maple - from Louisiana to Maine.

GELLERMAN: So, how does it work? I see a bud on a tree, I go to your website, I say, hey! I see a bud on a willow tree, it’s the first one of the spring, and here it is.

WELTZIN: Yeah, that’s pretty much the essence of it, it’s a bit more formal than that because our emphasis really here is on data quality. So the steps are very generally: go to the website, get yourself registered as an observer with Nature’s Notebook, all we really need is an email.

Search for plants and animals in your area that you’ve seen or you’re interested in observing, register a site, in other words you would define your backyard or your front yard or your favorite natural area, or nature preserve and then download some data sheets and get started, report your data online.

GELELRMAN: Well, we’ve had a really weird spring this year. I had read recently that every state in the nation had a record high temperature. Has that affected the observations that your crew of phenologists have registered?

WELTZIN: Sure! This spring was incredibly weird, this global weirding thing really hit us. And yes. The thermometers tell us one thing, and then the biometers - the biological world out there, plants and animals - are saying the exact same thing. That, indeed, with these warmer conditions this spring, we have earlier leafing, we have earlier pollen production, we have earlier mosquitoes. And people are just trying to figure out what is going on with spring this year.

GELLERMAN: So, how long have you been keeping records?

WELTZIN: Well, we opened the doors to citizen-scientist’s observations just in 2009.

GELLERMAN: So, too soon, too narrow a dataset to, kind of, track climate change?

WELTZIN: Probably relatively narrow, although what we’re doing is we can compare our recent data and our recent observations to old data sets like Thoreau’s datasets. So, Henry David Thoreau was seeing flowering of highbush blueberries, they find that blueberries are now three weeks earlier than they were back in Thoreau’s day. And so we can take advantage of those historical datasets.

Lewis and Clarke collected phenology datasets across the Western U.S. There’s great records from Mt. Vernon that Washington was holding, and some of your listeners actually have datasets that they’re holding because they keep track of when they planted bulbs and when the daffodils came up, or when the combines arrived to harvest the wheat out on the back 40.

GELLERMAN: There’s a study in the current edition of Nature, which talks about phenology, are you familiar with it?

WELTZIN: Yes. Yes. That’s a very exciting and a really interesting study.

GELLERMAN: Yeah, basically what they’re saying is that lab studies of natural events don’t even come close to approximating what’s going on in nature, that nature’s changing a lot quicker.

WELTZIN: Yes, it’s really surprising because actually I have a background in experimental ecology too where you would go out to the field and you would select some plots and you experimentally warm them to simulate, you know, global warming. And what the Nature paper is exciting about is because it’s showing that those experimental manipulations are actually under-predicting the changes that we see on the landscape.

GELLERMAN: Yeah by a lot! I’m reading the paper, it says four times faster for leafing and eight times faster for flowering in the natural environment.

WELTZIN: That’s indeed the case. And we don’t exactly know why, but it clearly demonstrates the need for sort of a national observing system for plants and animals. We like to call it an early warning system for climate change.

GELLERMAN: And I guess the question is: Can we keep pace with the changes?

WELTZIN: Yes, and I think that’s where, that’s really, to be honest, what it comes down to it. We recognize that we are indeed tightly tied to our environment. We need clean water, we need clean air, we want to have sustainable wildlife populations. And in order to do that, we need to understand the patterns that we see across the landscape.

We need to understand the reasons why those patterns are the way they are, and then we need to adapt to those changes. Because in a lot of cases, we can’t change when the pollen comes out, we can’t change when the fires happen, there were fires in Virginia already this year, and those things are changing and we’re going to have to adapt to our environment as it changes.

GELLERMAN: So, here we are Mr.Weltzin, we’re looking at and recalling the observations by Henry David Thoreau 150 and more years ago, do you think we’re going to be looking at the datasets from the National Phenology Network 150 years from now?

WELTZIN: Yes, I think, I guess I have to say that it’s possible that there might not be a National Phenology Network 50 or 150 years from now, but what I would like to do, and what I am working with excellent information technology people on, is to make sure that the data we collect today are going to be available, in readable form, if you will, similar to what Henry David Thoreau’s notes in his diaries were, I mean notoriously bad writing, you had to decipher all of that, but it was written down.

Notes from the fields of Gothic, Colorado. (Photo: National Phenology Network/ A. Miller-Rushin)

And, in this case, we’re collecting information that’s going to be digital, and so we have ensure that as computers change and as computer science changes in 150 years from now, those data will be available. So we’re thinking about that, thinking way out, to ensure that the data can be used in a similar way.

GELLERMAN: Well, Jake Weltzin, thank you so much!

WELTZIN: Thank you for this opportunity!

GELLERMAN: Jake Weltzin is executive director of the U.S.-National Phenology Network. You can learn a lot more at our website - L O E dot org.



The National Phenology Network

Nature article: “Warming experiments underpredict plant phenological responses to climate change”


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