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Wondering how climate change is affecting us now? Citizen scientists have a role to play

Posted June 01, 2014, at 11:17 a.m.
BDN

Strolling through the neighborhood, I cannot help but take notice of the changed landscape. Vibrant petals reach up toward the sunshine, creating colored patches in areas that were bare. My beagle, Nellie, stops to roll in the soft grass tufts. I pause from the walk as she does this and gaze up through the emerging leaves at a sparkling sun. Nearby, a robin hops into the bushes with a mouthful of nest-building supplies. Signs, both subtle and evident, signal the arrival of spring. For this, I think to myself, we’ve waited long enough!

But, have we? Certainly, this winter felt longer and colder than others in recent memory. It broke record lows and supplied ample snowfall. Has spring really been delayed in coming by an abnormal winter season? How does this year’s timing compare to the timing of old?

Observing and recording the signs of spring is part of the study of phenology, which looks at the timing of life cycle events in plant and animal species. Keeping a log of the first breaking bud or wood frog call requires no extensive training or expensive equipment. It does, however, provide the data necessary to compare seasonal events from year to year. It allows everyone, young and old, to engage in nature and observe the happenings of their own region.

My walks with Nellie are as much a time of research as they are a time to pause and appreciate. I tune out the noise of electronic alerts and tune in to the buzzing of pollinating insects. The human spirit needs a break from the hectic pace of our modern world as much as it needs answers. Would you watch the rambling bumblebees and listen to their hum if you knew it would clear your mind and inspire your heart?

More than just potential health benefits for us as individuals, examining phenology can serve our planet as a whole. The National Climate Change Assessment released earlier this month documents observed changes in species behavior throughout the country due to shifts in the amount of rainfall or higher temperatures. Though some species appear to be thriving, many more are in decline. In some cases, species that were once linked are adjusting to climate change in different ways, straining symbiotic relationships.

The uncertainty of nature’s response to climate change has the potential to impact many areas of our lives. Allergy sufferers are affected when pollen arrives earlier or in heavier quantities. Our food supply is reduced or increased in price if flowers bloom before pollinators are available for them. Hunters should take note as well; game populations dwindle when environmental conditions do not provide for them.

There is no need to wonder if climate change is only a far away and far off event. For those of us involved in phenology, observations show these real changes.

A community of citizen scientists can capture far more information than a scientific community with limited funding and staff. By engaging in phenology, we can fill in the smaller pieces of the puzzle that lead to big-picture ideas and beneficial regulation.

You can become involved in phenology in your neighborhood. Bring a sketch book and record personal observations. Keep them to develop your own understanding or add them to a national database to be used by scientists. Connect back to nature in a way that benefits both you and society. Gain a greater awareness of climate change in Maine for yourself and for others.

At this time of year, the signs of spring come rapidly. Dandelions pop up along the roadside and nearly everywhere else. Sprawling forsythia bushes are in bloom. Recording these observations allows us to gain perspective. Through an open window, chirping beckons me to abandon my desk. Nellie and I will be out for a walk if you need us.

Elissa Koskela is the assistant coordinator for the Signs of the Seasons program, a phenology program coordinated by the University of Maine Cooperative Extension and the Maine Sea Grant. More information can be found at http://umaine.edu/signs-of-the-seasons/.

 

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