Nature’s Notebook: Would you like to join in taking the pulse of our planet?
I know of this incredible guy, Dave. In fact, you may have read his blog here last week. If you haven’t, check it out. He’s a brilliant example of how naturalists and researchers can truly partner and do science together. He loves the outdoors and goes hiking all the time. I do, too, but make no mistake: I’m no Dave. You see, Dave’s a little extra special in one respect.
This guy doesn’t just hike and explore different trails and natural areas. He has been diligently hiking the same craggy stretch of Finger Rock Trail in Tucson’s Catalina Mountains for nearly 30 years, logging more than 13,000 miles.
And that’s not even the most amazing part.
You’ll read in his blog that on these little “jaunts,” Dave has been observing the timing of flowering in nearly 600 species throughout the seasons. Flowering is a milestone event in a plant’s life, and it is one example of phenology, which refers to recurring plant and animal life cycle stages, especially their timing and relationships with weather and climate.
Your entire life, you’ve seen phenology unfolding before you from one season to the next, year after year. Birds migrate. Flowers bloom. Insects emerge. But phenology is more than fun to witness: It can be extremely valuable to scientific discovery.
Phenological information tells us a lot about numerous aspects of our changing environment. It can help us predict drought, flooding and wildfires as well as the onset of allergy seasons or spring. This kind of data is special, as it can inform many scientific disciplines. In fact, phenological data remind me of my “little black dress.” No matter what kind of event I attend, my catchall outfit can be dressed up or down and is suitable for almost any soiree.
In the same vein, no matter what kind of environmental research is being conducted, phenological information is often appropriate to complement and bolster the science. For example, trees putting on leaves marks the onset of the spring season. When spring actually begins can have rippling effects through entire ecosystems, including food availability for animals, carbon sequestration through plant leaves, and water reaching the atmosphere via evapotranspiration. NASA uses satellites to capture green up from hundreds of miles above the earth. Naturalists gather phenology data on leaf out up-close (sometimes even with a magnifying glass). These unrelated datasets often “tell the same story” about when the spring season is commencing. When paired, they reinforce each other; the combined findings are that much stronger.
But there is a problem.
Storing, organizing and interpreting your own observations can be challenging. An even larger-scale challenge, however, is that Dave, myself and maybe even you have been observing seasonal changes in plants or animals, casually (or with dogged dedication). Some of us never record what we see and instead just file away what we see to memory. Others jot down notes in a journal. Or maybe you’ve even gone so far as to create a spreadsheet.
Here’s the point—
All of this valuable information doesn’t make it into the hands of researchers who can actually use it to improve the quality of life for people and our natural world. Phenology information can equip land and resource managers to make better informed decisions about all kinds of things, like when to irrigate, when to do controlled burns in forests or when to pick grapes for the wine making season. All of this rich information gets lost and goes to waste if not put in the hands of researchers.
That was true until a few years ago.
In 2007, the USA National Phenology Network launched a citizen scientist program called Nature's Notebook. It's a clearinghouse of plant and animal phenology data. Amateur and professional naturalists across the country volunteer to collect, store and share their observations of seasonal changes in plants and animals in their own backyards or local areas. They follow standardized protocols, taking observations and uploading their data into the Nature's Notebook online database. It houses nearly 900 plant and animal species. Anyone, including researchers, can access it for free. (You can find out more about the organization or its citizen science program in the USA-NPN Annual Report that was recently released.)
If you’d like to participate too, join the program! Choose plants or animals that you want to track in your home area, and head outside to observe weekly.
(Observing two to four times per week is ideal in the spring, the time of year when you’re likely to witness the most phenological changes.)
Thousands of people participate in Nature’s Notebook for a few interesting reasons…You can expand your knowledge and more intimately connect with local plants or animals. You can store, organize and interpret the changes you've been observing in your natural world using exciting visualization tools. Plus, you personally can empower your hobby (or job) observing nature to benefit scientific discovery.
Whether you're an amateur naturalist, land or resource manager, or you’re like my enthusiastic botanist friend Dave – I’d encourage you to consider joining the Nature's Notebook community of citizen scientists. It’s a great place to be!