Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Practice phenology: more interesting than it sounds, and no one else in OK is ...

[photo: leaves start to change their colors this time of year as the green pigment chlorophyll stops working in the transfer of sunlight into food. other colors start to show through. have you noticed if leaves in your backyard are changing? scientists want to know. you can help them out at the project budburst web site.]

By John Sutter

Helping scientists figure out climate change could be as simple as walking out your back door and writing down whether or not the leaves you see are green.

That was the pitch this morning from Kirsten de Beurs, an assistant professor of geography at Virginia Tech who spoke at an environmental journalists' conference in Roanoke, Va. De Beurs is one of a host of scientists pairing images from satellites with observations from volunteers on the ground to try to see how the planet is changing.

De Beurs said Americans have been slow to enlist themselves as citizen phenologists, which is just a phrightening code word for someone who studies seasons and other periodic changes in nature.

"It's not that hard to collect phenological data. Anyone can go outside, look at their backyard, tell what is green and enter that in a database," she said, "Then, you're a citizen scientist."

Oklahoma and North Dakota as the only two states from which people haven't contributed to a national network of basic environmental observations. By posting to the site, people not only help out scientists who don't have the funding to make all the observations themselves -- they also gain a basic and needed understanding of the world, de Beurs said.

Some satellite images show that vegetation zones in North America are moving north as the climate warms. There's been some controversy over the U.S. Department of Agriculture's vegetation map, which hasn't been updated since 1990 and may not reflect changes in the climate as more heat-trapping gasses become part of the atmosphere. The Arbor Day Foundation made a new map in 2006 that shows a shift in the growing zones that are commonly listed on the backs of seed packets (go here for an animation of the two maps.)

Here's more on that from USA Today:
The map doesn't show, for example, that the Southern magnolia, once limited largely to growing zones ranging from Florida to Virginia, now can thrive as far north as Pennsylvania. Or that kiwis, long hardy only as far north as Oklahoma, now might give fruit in St. Louis.
When looking at such changes, it's important to take many factors into consideration, de Beurs said. For instance, changes to agricultural land could be the result of government policies or economic conditions, not just changes in weather or climate. More satellite images are needed to draw some long term conclusions, she said, adding that there's no better way to strengthen the data than to contribute to it. Europe has had a hearty group of citizen scientists trolling for observations since the 1700s, she said. In the United States, it may be catching on just now.

Let me know by commenting on this page if you all decide to help out with Project BudBurst. The site has some information on plant identification and instructions with out to enter your observations so that scientists can use them. I'll e-mail de Beurs and let her know that she can cross another state of her list if any Oklahomans decide to contribute. You also might check out Oklahoma's Blue Thumb program, which lets volunteers supply state government with water quality samples. About 300 people who work with the program have become watchdogs for the streams and rivers they live near and care about.

Proponents of Blue Thumb say it's important since most of the state's rivers aren't monitored. There are some concerns that citizen-collected data isn't as reliable as data collected by trained scientists, but de Beurs told me that the observations are genuinely useful for researchers.


Whizbee said...

That's a great idea. Is there any special training involved?

jdsutter said...

nah, you just observe and send it in. check out their site out. even kids can do it. i think they get a lot of their data from schools ... science teachers sometimes pick the idea up. if them send them some notes, let me know.