Central Park, New York City, Spring - John A. Anderson Shutterstock 100166354

The Science Near Me blog is a partnership between Find out magazine and ScienceNearMe.org.

Depending on where you live, climate change can feel like something that’s happening elsewhere if at all. Warmer temperatures and wilder weather is something that is coming in the future, or that affects people halfway around the globe (or at least in another country).

But the new data reveal the subtle but profound ways the climate is already changing everywhere, and the impacts aren’t just natural disasters and rising seas. Even in temperate inland regions, where a few degrees of warming might not sound so bad to a casual observer, climate changes are obvious if you know where to look.

In a recent study in Journal of Ecology, a team led by Portland State University scientists reported remarkable changes in plant phenology—the timing of events such as leafing and flowering—in New York State over the past 200 years. They found that spring is moving three days earlier for every degree (Celsius) of warming. This means that flowers bloom more than 10 days earlier and plants leaf out 19 days earlier today compared to the 19th century. These insights come thanks to a combination of old and new climate observations collected by volunteer scientists.

The team reports that the changes were more extreme in urban areas than in rural areas, and were worse for trees and shrubs than for herbaceous species. The researchers also saw greater variation in insect-pollinated species than wind-pollinated ones. The research is a stark reminder that climate change is affecting the environment everywhere — and that ordinary citizens have a role to play in helping to study it.

(Credit: Fiery Phoenix/Shutterstock)

Citizen science with horse and buggy

The data set behind the new work is remarkable in its own right. The historical observations, collected from 1826 to 1872, were recently discovered by New York ecologist Konrad Vispo, who worked with Hawthorne Valley Farmlandscape Ecology Program.

“[Vispo] I found a mention of temperature and phenology data in an old book one day and followed the tracks,” says Kerissa Fuccillo Battle, lead author of the study and founding director of Greenways Community Collaboration. “He searched through archives and collected summary publications and was able to pull it all together with his team.”

The data was collected by over 500 observers at hundreds of sites across the state. The effort was organized by the New York State Regents and in 1850 joined the Smithsonian Institution’s newly formed national network of weather observatories, a forerunner of the National Weather Service.

But Vispo realized that the true value of these historical observations depended on having modern data to compare them to. So, he did the first thing that came to mind: looked up “phenology New York” online. This led Vispo to the New York Phenology Project, an affiliate of US National Phenology Network that Fuccillo Battle started in 2012.

“When he called me and told me that this [historical] the data set existed, it was exciting, even a miracle,” says Fuccillo Battle. Even the protocols—the methods the observers used, the species they recorded, and the type of data they collected—were a good match, she says. “These two very similar citizen science initiatives were separated by two centuries,” she says. “It was mind-blowing.”

It’s a reminder to citizen scientists today that they are part of a long-standing tradition, not a modern invention. “It’s tempting to imagine that there was a network of observers doing this kind of work in the early 19th century,” says Fuccillo Battle, “[maybe] collecting and compiling their data by horse and buggy.”

Variable spring

Two weeks less winter in a place like New York might not sound so bad—snow haters might even be tempted to celebrate. But changes in phenology can have large downstream effects that alter ecosystems and in turn impact local people. The timing of the changing seasons affects agriculture, tourism, public health (think: allergy seasons) and more, explains Fuccillo Battle.

For example, if a food crop like peaches or apples blooms early, it is at a much higher risk of late-season frost. The same goes for trees that may be important to bees, such as the red maple, which would have a cascading effect on local pollinator populations, she says.

Fortunately, being aware of these changes and their possible effects can help mitigate the damage. “On-the-ground knowledge of how plants and animals respond to climate change enables better ecological forecasting and preparedness,” says Fuccillo Battle. “Phenological monitoring can help land managers make more informed decisions for conservation, recreation and economic purposes.”

Tune in

This type of work is only possible with the help of citizen scientists—volunteers who make observations wherever they are and share them with researchers like Fuccillo Battle.

“This study allows us to see how this unique story comes full circle and deeply appreciate the many observers, both past and present, who made this possible,” she says.

No matter where you are, you can help experts track phenological changes over time. This is something that is valuable not only to researchers and the environment, but also to yourself. “People tracking phenology where they live connects them to their landscape in a way that can be personally rewarding on many levels,” says Fuccillo Battle. “Volunteer observers today are building the datasets needed for the future to track the mechanisms and consequences of climate change.”

To participate, all you have to do is find a project that tracks phenology in your area, sign up, and start recording observations. Visit ScienceNearMe.org and enter your location to get started. Science Near Me is a free resource that helps you find opportunities to get involved in all kinds of science events, projects and programs near you, in person and online. Her citizen science projects come from partner SciStarter.org, which hosts thousands of citizen science projects from around the web!

“These observers are the eyes of the earth and can cover large geographic regions, collecting data at an unprecedented rate,” she says. “It would be impossible for scientists alone.”

If your organization has a scientific opportunity to share, be sure to add it Science near me! We would love to share your event, opportunity, activity or camp with our community.

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