Climate Scientists Enlist Citizen Volunteers The National Phenology Network is recruiting people across the U.S. to record when trees bud, flowers bloom and migrating animals return. The project's executive director, Jake Weltzin, explains how tracking these trends can help scientists better understand climate change.
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Climate Scientists Enlist Citizen Volunteers

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Climate Scientists Enlist Citizen Volunteers

Climate Scientists Enlist Citizen Volunteers

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You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

Up next, are you watching for signs of spring in your backyard? You know, there are certain signs of spring and changes of season that always happen. Maybe you've got some of your favorite.

I know here, back East, it's the cherry blossoms, you know, in Washington. We're looking for the cherry blossoms, having cherry blossom festivals, I'm sure, all around the country every late March to mid-April.

The Japanese, where our cherry trees come from, they watch for those delicate pink and white blossoms to erupt from awakening cherry trees. And it's a tradition that goes back many thousands of years, and they've got all kinds of records.

Because of that, they know from their records just about when those blossoms should be happening. So if there's a change in season, they've got a long record of knowing, wait, the blossoms are early this year. They are late this year.

Well with climate change, global warming, upon us, scientists want to know the signs of global warming. How is global warming affecting the changing of the seasons? And they'll know that by looking at how the flowers are developing and at what time of the year - are they late, are they early - and they want to track the changes. And this is where you can come in.

They would like to enlist you and your help watching your flowers and your plants in your backyard, keeping track of those changes and helping the scientists keep track of just how global warming is happening.

Here to talk about that is Jake Weltzin. Dr. Weltzin is a senior scientist for the U.S. Geological Survey. He's also executive director of the U.S. National Phenology Network - that's a word we'll talk about it - at their national coordinating office in Tucson, Arizona. He joins us from a studio there.

Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Weltzin.

Dr. JAKE WELTZIN (Executive Director, U.S. National Phenology Network): Thank you. Thank you, Ira. Glad to be here.

FLATOW: Tell us what phenology is.

Dr. WELTZIN: Phenology is a tough word. It's one we have to overcome every time we open our mouths and say phenology. It's important to distinguish it from phrenology.

FLATOW: Oh yeah.

Dr. WELTZIN: Phrenology, and we'll talk about that in a second. Phenology itself is simply the study of the timing of life cycle events for plants and animals. When do flowers come? When do leaves come on? When do leaves change color? When do you get that first robin in your backyard?

FLATOW: Yes, so these are things that happen every year at a predictable time, more or less.

Dr. WELTZIN: More or less predictable, yes, but they're seasonal events.

FLATOW: Seasonal events. And you're trying to enlist all of us to help you follow changes in those seasonal events.

Dr. WELTZIN: We're trying to couple citizen-scientists with scientists so we can work together to get the density of data that we need across the nation to track climate change.

FLATOW: This sort of data gathering has been in place internationally for a while, has it not?

Dr. WELTZIN: Well, yes. We're a bit behind.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Something else, we're a bit behind.

Dr. WELTZIN: We're working on it. We're working on it. So for example in the U.K. and Britain, people track the timing of flowering, and they've been doing this for many, many years, bird arrivals, etcetera. In fact, they even track the time when they mow their lawns, which is a fantastic set of data.

FLATOW: Is that right?

Dr. WELTZIN: Yup. Just for the first time just two years ago, people were actually having to go out and mow their lawns on the day after Christmas, Boxing Day, they call it, because of warming that's occurred in the British Isles, and you end up having to go out and mow the lawn after you open your presents.

FLATOW: Wow. So you set up a network where we can be those kinds of people.

Dr. WELTZIN: Yes. The network includes a number of different types of groups and organizations, federal agencies, state and local agencies, management organizations, non-governmental organizations, but really to get the density of data that we need for the nation, we need the public. We need volunteers, citizen-scientists, who can help us track climate change in their backyard.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255, and our country was founded on citizen-scientists, wasn't it? I mean the Franklins and the Thoreaus and people like that.

Dr. WELTZIN: Henry David Thoreau was out there as a phenologist. He was tracking the timing of 600 species of flowers around Concord, in the Concord area and when he's on Walden Pond. We can actually go back and find his old records. We've got his diaries. We can go through them, look at the data that he has there, try to interpret his handwriting and then compare patterns that he saw in the 1850s to what we see right now.

FLATOW: Okay, let's say that I want to join this effort. I want to be a citizen-scientist in my backyard. I have all kinds - I watch these every year, you know. I even think the onions are coming up early.

Dr. WELTZIN: Crocuses, daffodils.

FLATOW: How do I become part of this movement here?

Dr. WELTZIN: It's very easy. All you need to do is go to our Web page, which is linked from your Web page, and people can learn about phenology, learn about climate change and how they're related, click on participate.

There's different ways that people can participate, and one of those is to become an observer, where you register yourself, register your site, add some plants there to the site online - you're not necessarily going to be planting anything - what's out there that you're familiar with, and follow the standardized protocols, so we have nationally standardized protocols, and enter the data online.

FLATOW: Yeah, I was looking at your site before, and I noticed that I have a prized dogwood tree in my backyard that would qualify.

Dr. WELTZIN: Yes, yes, and we would love to get your data, Ira.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. WELTZIN: Get out there. Let us know when the leaves come out, when the flowers come on, when the flowers end their flowering. So, imagine a network of people who are tracking dogwoods just like you across the Eastern U.S. and where dogwoods are growing and where they might grow in the future, who knows?

But then you can go online, and we're still working on some of these capabilities. We went live on Monday, but you could go online and get a map and say where am I going to go to see the best dogwoods? Where are people reporting dogwoods through this national network?

But it's scientifically based, as well, so that scientists can be saying I want the same information. What is the pattern, spatial pattern, the temporal pattern, of dogwood flowering, of tulip poplars, of Mexican poppies, et cetera?

FLATOW: But one thing that troubles me is, you know, I'm not a great record-keeper. I mean, and you're going to depend on me to keep records exactly of the day on this and everybody else?

Dr. WELTZIN: We've actually been working on our interface, our user interface, and it's very straightforward and easy. Basically what you do is when you go online and you have your site, you just come into the Web page and say okay, did I make an observation? Yes or no. And if I did make an observation, did I see this event that it was happening?

So you can enter - if you'd like to - enter your data daily, or you can enter - save your data and enter it. But what that does is scientists like this particular approach or this tool because it gives them an estimate of how often you go out. We call that sampling density. And it also tells us whether or not you saw the event occurring.

Did you see the first flower on your dogwood or not? It gives us absence data, which we can then use to develop models, predictive models, to then make predictions about when should - where and when should we see life or dogwoods next year.

FLATOW: You know what you might want to think about doing is making like a little app or something for an iPhone or for MySpace or any of these places, Facebook. Facebook, they'll be right on there. You see it every day to remind you.

Dr. WELTZIN: Yeah, yeah, that's exactly - we're working on it, Ira. We're working on it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. WELTZIN: In fact, if there's folks out there, if you're participating in the National Phenology Network as an observer, you're part of the National Phenology Network. We're trying to coordinate these activities. But if there are people who are out there who have these kinds of apps and might be interested in sharing them, make them available, we're into it.

FLATOW: All right. Let's get some phone calls, and we'll get some more questions here because I've got a lot of them, 1-800-989-8255. Janice(ph) in Selma, Oregon, is that - am I pronouncing your name right?

JANICE (Caller): Yes, it's Janice.

FLATOW: I'm sorry.

JANICE: That's all right. So I had a suggestion. I am a mail carrier. And every spring, the bees come into the mailboxes, and it happens about a certain time, and I imagine it probably happens to all mail carriers.

Dr. WELTZIN: Yup. I lived in Knoxville for several years, and we had ladybugs that would come into our houses, and they were often regarded as a sure harbinger of spring and fall, and so yes.

We're actually - right now, the system that we have set up is focused mostly on plants because we're in the process of coordinating and collaborating with Fish and Wildlife Service and the Wildlife Society to build a wildlife monitoring program for next year. So next spring…

FLATOW: Well I would think - well, mail carriers would be perfect people for this, wouldn't they?

Dr. WELTZIN: Sure.

FLATOW: They're seeing it all the time. Janice, would you like to get involved in this?

JANICE: Oh, I would do it. I don't like the bees, but I would certainly tell my postmaster and she could probably email, you know, the big guy in the post office. And if everybody did that, it would be some pretty good information.

FLATOW: Maybe you could do the crocus patrol.

JANICE: There you go.

FLATOW: You know, with something like that, she goes by all these houses all the time, she could see when they're all out. They probably all pop-up at the same time in the same neighborhood.

JANICE: Yup, that's probably true.

Dr. WELTZIN: Again, this national mail carrier corps, or really, anybody - Boys and Girls Clubs, nature conservancy sites, friends of the National Wildlife Refuge System. There's all sorts of different groups out there that might be really interested in tracking the timing of different events, plants and animals, - landscapes, even.

FLATOW: Here's a good idea. Someone on our Sci-Fri Twitter says, PB Beauchamp(ph) says: Can I Twitter in my phenology observations?

Dr. WELTZIN: We're working on it. We're working on it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. WELTZIN: As soon as we possibly can, try and take advantage of these (unintelligible) that we mentioned. Yeah.

FLATOW: Get some volunteers, quick. You can't do everything.

Dr. WELTZIN: Yeah. We'll go find Google and say, hey. So we're a - you'll notice we're a .org. And so this is being spearheaded by the U.S. Geological Survey, but - with National Science Foundation money, Fish and Wildlife Service monies, etc. But what we are really are trying to do is partner. We need partners - industry, non-governmental organizations - Defenders of Wildlife, for example - other federal agencies. We work very closely with the Park Service. We're developing a national strategy so that we can have anybody and everybody. Well - and here's why.

We're looking for a 100,000 observers across United States within just few years to be entering this data and turning it around again, available to scientists who are interested in understanding how environment variation affects - impacts - effects natural resources, management, invasive species, allergenic species. We'd like to be able to predict when allergens are occurring. And if we have people across the U.S. who are tracking…

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. WELTZIN: …a ragweed, we can actually develop some predictive tools and, again, another app where people can come online and learn more and find out when the allergies will be hitting their area.

FLATOW: You know, it's a great idea because, you know, you'd just get tired of just saying, I'm brushing my teeth today, you know, in those social communities.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: You could say I'm looking up at - I'm checking what the crocuses have just come up again, that sort of thing.

Dr. WELTZIN: Yeah.

FLATOW: And, you know, as you know, and I'm sure I don't have to tell you, there are really some very serious gardeners out there. And they must have cigar boxes full of records, you know of when they planted things or saw things coming up from years before - in the attic or something. Would you be interested in that kind of stuff?

Dr. WELTZIN: We are interested in those kinds of data sets. So I get the question often - well, why are you starting a national monitoring network today? Wouldn't it have been great if you had done that say, 30 years ago? And I answer yes, if only. But we're starting now, and those legacy data sets, or historic data sets, or sometimes even people call them shoe-box data sets - because that's where a lot of these data sets are stored - are very valuable, like Thoreau's data. Aldo Leopold was collecting phenology, not even necessarily knowing that was what he was doing per se, and other folks.

And there's a lot of people out there who are - go jogging and they've got a skunk cabbage data set, or they keep track of when they planted the - when they planted their bulbs in the fall and when the bulbs came up. Farmers who keep track of rainfall just on a barn door or maybe when they harvested wheat. So there's a lots of what we call historic data sets, and we are developing tools, so of asking these people to hold them for the time being or let us know about them.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. WELTZIN: We're developing tools so that people can come online and just say, here are my data that are useful now for scientists, and that we're sharing it to the scientific community for understanding of how climate change is affecting and shaping our nation.

FLATOW: How close is the link between blooming time, linked to evidence of climate change?

Dr. WELTZIN: There - that's - this is called attribution, where you're attributing changes not just for a given organism, but for all organisms within a population or across an entire region, attributing that to changes in temperature. And there is a tight correlation. But it depends. Not all species respond the same. So some might have a very strong response. Others might have very little response. And what - you can imagine what happens as you end up with what we call a decoupling. You have systems that can - are potentially falling apart. They're no longer working in sync. They're working at different times. So if you have mutualisms where…

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. WELTZIN: …you have one organism working with another or pollinators that are waiting for flower nectar or you have bees, again, that are depending on flowers - if the timing is off, you can end up with a system that falls apart.

FLATOW: Talking about phenology this hour on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow, talking with Jake Weltzin. Let's go to the phones. Lots of people want to talk about this as, of course. John in Grand Rapids. Hi, John.

JOHN (Caller): Hi, Ira.

FLATOW: Hi, there.

JOHN: Thank you for taking my call. I was most intrigued to hear about this. I have - we have a small public radio station in our town, and I have been doing a program on phenology for 25 years. In fact, I'm celebrating my 25th year of phenology this year.

FLATOW: Ah, mazel tov.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JOHN: And I have 25 years of records that might be interesting to your guest.

Dr. WELTZIN: They would be. And we know about your radio show, and…

FLATOW: What's your show called, John?

JOHN: Oh, I call it "The Phenology Show."

FLATOW: An apt name.

JOHN: Oddly enough. And so many listeners in Northern Minnesota are well acquainted with phenology.

FLATOW: That's great. So you can get his data from him.

Dr. WELTZIN: We would be happy. We'll provide a link to your show on our Web page. We'll get it up there right away. It was there, and I will get it right up there, right in front center. And I'd love to talk to you more about the types of data and the people you've got who are tracking phenology in your region.

FLATOW: Right.

JOHN: I would be honored to provide you with that information. And Ira, I know you have talked in the past about Twitter. I'm a 60-year-old fellow and a mail carrier, by the way, but my son has introduced me the Twitter. And if people would like to Twitter me with their information, they can go to

FLATOW: There you go.

JOHN: And I can get that information into my records, as well as maybe pass it along to the Phenology Network.

FLATOW: There you go. Thanks for calling, John. Good luck.

JOHN: Thank you very much. It was a pleasure.

FLATOW: Congratulations.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. I'll even get a quick call, and I'm rushing to get to Mike in Chicago. Hi, Mike.

MIKE (Caller): Oh, hi. Hey. I'm a nature photographer, and I'm frequently keeping track of my own, in my own sort of database, of all the things that bloom and all the times. Not as 0 I don't think specifically, as accurately. But it ranges. It seems to range - like, I remember 10 years ago or nine years ago, tax day was a big day for Virginia bluebells at a certain location. And that was early. And then the next year, it was like two and a half weeks later. And it just jumps around so much, I kind of wonder, how, you know…

FLATOW: Yeah, all right. Thanks for the call.

MIKE: Yeah, sure.

Dr. WELTZIN: I could address that.


Dr. WELTZIN: There is - there's a lot of variation from one year to the next. And so if you're looking for a 30-year signal, you have to be able to account for that variation. So there's some pretty advanced statistical techniques that we use to do trend analysis. But a cold spring is a cold spring.

FLATOW: Yeah. Let me a quick call in - Katie in Walla Walla. I've always to say that on SCIENCE FRIDAY: Walla Walla, Washington.

KATE (Caller): Thanks, Ira.

FLATOW: Quickly.

KATE: I'm a home school mom, and I really would like to applaud your guest for bringing this to the community because it's an excellent tool to bring our kids into the scientific community, to train them as future scientists and present scientists, and to reinforce that notion that philosophy, that school and learning doesn't take place inside of -inside of four walls, but rather is all around us all the time.

FLATOW: Informal science for the kids. Yeah.

KATE: So it's an opportunity for school-age kids to participate.

FLATOW: Yeah, we should get all the schools involved. Great idea. And people who do homeschooling.

KATE: It's a terrific opportunity to encourage scientific observation to - and reinforce data entry, and also, great vocabulary lessons.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Good luck. Thank you, Kate. That was good. That was a good point. Thanks.

KATE: Thank you.

FLATOW: Have a good weekend. Yeah, instead of just blowing things up in science class, we could show that you can collect - go out and collect data and make observations like real scientists.

Dr. WELTZIN: Sure. Yeah. We'd welcome - we welcome schools. That's a fantastic way to connect people with nature, get kids outside, more kids in the woods…

FLATOW: And so - just because it's easy. And so the site's up and running, and we can go, check in now and become partners.

Dr. WELTZIN: Sign up today.

FLATOW: Jack Weltzin is a - I'm sorry, it's Jake. I'm sorry, Jake.


FLATOW: Jake Weltzin is a scientist of the U.S. Geological Survey, and he's also executive director of the USA National Phenology Network at the national coordinating office in Tucson. Thank you Jake, for taking time to be with us today. And we hope to send a lot of traffic to your Web site and get a lot of people involved in this.

Dr. WELTZIN: Send them on. We're ready for them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Ready for them. All right, stay with us. We're going to switch gears, take a short break, and we're going to talk about the - this disease that is killing bats all over Upstate New York, and it is spreading to other parts of the Northeast, and some clues and some interesting ideas on how to combat those deaths. We'll talk about it after this break, so stay with us.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

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