It was a gorgeous spring in Wisconsin. Our mild winter burnt off in a week of 80 degree days in March, and everything began to green up early. Tiny leaves burst from branches, the grass turned so green that it practically glowed, and tiny flowers of all shapes and sizes popped up.
Perhaps the green struck me as incredibly vibrant because I’ve spent the past 4 springs in the Mojave, which has it’s own beauty, certainly, but not from endless shades of green. I called my mom to gush about the flowers, tiny violets and spring beauties, that grow up in the grass. Flowers in the grass! Such miracles don’t occur in the arid climes, where all grass is planted from sod and watered a few mornings a week to keep it from drying into brown or browner.
The other amazing part of my first spring in Wisconsin was how early all of green began to grow. The science of the timing of plants (and animals) is called Phenology. Tracking when trees begin to leaf out, or flowers bloom, or butterflies emerge from cocoons or baby birds take their first flights from their nests can help scientists understand how ecosystems depend on climate conditions. As we move into the “Anthropocene” with human produced carbon dioxide in the atmosphere driving climate changes, scientists compare current timing to historic averages to assess how plants and animals are responding to the small, subtle but significant climate changes that we are already experiencing.
The data required for this types of landscape scale analysis is usually expensive and time consuming for researchers to collect. To solve this data shortage problem, the USA National Phenology Network harnessed the power of nature lovers everywhere. They recruit “citizen scientists” across the country to monitor their local environment and report back to the national network. From gardeners monitoring their backyard to school groups on bird watching hikes, anyone can join the Nature’s Notebook program and help build the nationwide phenology database.
The program started in 2008 and on April 30th, 2012, the Nature’s Notebook program received it’s millionth observation. As I write this, about a month later, it’s already grown to 1,094,459 records.
In addition to encouraging citizen scientists to collect data, the USA-NPN encourages everyone to analyze the data as well. An interactive mapping tool allows users to explore the data. You can select a species of interest and then animate the map to show you when certain observations, like leafing out or blooming occurred on a timeline across the country. I tried out Sugar Maples, for example, and watched them leaf out across New England and the Midwest. Very cool. Data is also available for download if you have specific research interests.
I’m excited to join the phenology observation network, mostly because it will give me a good reason to geek out over wildflowers, but also to participate in the big picture. This larger idea of recruiting citizens to help scientists collect data seems to be catching on in this digital, data-sharing age. I wrote about another organization, Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation, that connects adventures exploring remote regions to bring back specific information for interested researchers. Scientific American reports on citizen science projects across the country here. I think it’s a brilliant strategy for getting more people involved in research, to understand how and why science is done. The more people realize that science is not scary, it’s actual built from everyday observations like when the flowers in your grass start to bloom, the better.