Climate Change

Timing is Everything

March 25, 2009

Climate change may have arrived in your own yard, and scientists across the nation would like to hear about it.

Several projects are joining forces as part of the abstruse-sounding National Phenology Network (NPN), and the researchers and educators in the network hope to harness the power of hundreds or thousands of citizen scientists across the nation all keeping notes on critical changes in the natural world: When do fruit trees blossom? How about those poppies and lupine in the park where you hike? And when do the ducks and geese arrive and leave?

All those questions are at the heart of phenology, the study of recurring plant and animal life cycle events, or phenophases, such as leafing and flowering, maturation of agricultural plants, emergence of insects, and migration of birds.

With climatic changes occurring worldwide, spring events are occurring earlier and fall events are happening later than they ever have. Plants and animals are forced to acclimate to their changing environments, and humans are noticing that allergy season arrived early as well this year.

The NPN is working with other groups, including San Francisco’s Great Sunflower Project (, to gather government agencies, nonprofit groups, educators, and students of all ages to monitor the impacts of climate change on plants and animals in the United States.

Since anyone can participate, studies vary widely in their sophistication. San Francisco State biology professor Gretchen LeBuhn  made news last year when she launched the Great Sunflower Project, an effort to recruit people from all over the country to plant the same sunflower species and then monitor insects that visit the flowers. Other projects are as informal as Boys and Girls Clubs building and monitoring their own gardens in California, or even gardeners making observations on single plants in their backyards in Maryland.

To become an observer for NPN, sign up on their website, select your observation site and your plants and register them online, learn the phenophases for your plants, and begin making observations, which you can report for all to see.

The website and your own garden (or any spot you choose to observe) will give you everything you need to join in. The website provides observation guidelines, frequently asked questions, a selection of plants you may wish to observe, and an e-mail list you can join to facilitate communication among scientists, managers, and other people interested in the phenology of plants, animals, and landscapes.

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