Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Citizen Science Phenology

Poking around the Web as I investigated the idea of phenology*--a preoccupation of Thoreau's and many 19th century contemporaries--I discovered that there is still data to be gathered--it's not simply a 19th century hobby--and WE CAN HELP.  The National Phenology Network (whoda thunk?) has a citizen science project called Nature's Notebook that allows anyone who is interested to enter a location they want to observe over time, choose species of plants and/or animals they want to collect data on, and then upload all this on a regular basis to their database.  The nature of the observations needed differs depending on the species.  If you were watching a white oak, for example, you would record any buds opening, leaves expanding, flowers blooming, leaves turning, and so on.  For an animal like the wooly bear caterpillar (which metamorphoses into a tiger moth), it might be the presence of caterpillars, their feeding, the presence of adults, their mating, and so on. 

Of what use is this data?  One urgent need is to track the effects of global warming on ecosystems, and because phenology records have been kept for a long time, these are particularly valuable.  (Henry Thoreau's own century-and-a-half-old records have even been pressed into service to show that spring temperatures have been arriving earlier than ever before.)  The Nature's Notebook site lists several recent discoveries made with their data.

I was so pleased to find usefulness for my interest in nature, that I immediately signed up; yesterday I uploaded my first observations.

If you'd like to get involved, here are some tips.

· Think about where you can observe (your site) that is very accessible and not too close to a building: you choose when you want to observe, and how intensively, but in times of rapid change (spring, fall) frequent observations (every few days) will be more useful in pinpointing timing. (I chose my own yard to avoid the time needed to travel.)

· When you begin to choose species to observe, you will notice that data is only being collected on certain species. (I was disappointed to discover I would not be able to enter data on my beautiful scarlet oak.) Some, called calibration species, are especially valuable to observe because they are widely distributed, and so allow comparisons over much of the US. In the case of plants, it may be valuable to observe several individuals (though not near neighbors). Of course, make sure you correctly identify what you will observe!

· Be careful not to get in over your head; choose just one or a few species to start with. (I blithely signed up for three tree species and two grasses, and was surprised to find out how long it took to observe all the details and then upload them; I'm hoping I get faster with practice!) When you have become familiar with the time commitment, you can always add more species, or more individuals of the same (plant) species.

· Finally, I had trouble getting through the site set-up process, maybe because I was using Internet Explorer; the website is optimized (I was told later) for Firefox and Google Chrome.

· Other questions you might have will probably be answered in the FAQ

To see the big picture, maybe figure out what is most needed in your area, you can use the Phrenology Visualization Tool to see where in your state and nationwide data is being collected, and on what species. (I found some surprises here.) You can even get data to analyze yourself. These pages are back at the original USA-NPN site.

NOTE that there are other citizen science initiatives that might interest you. Internet-based citizen science started years ago with Seti@home, which put idle home computers to work analyzing radio telescope data from space in search of intelligent extraterrestrial signals. A modern one I've participated in is Zooniverse, which began by putting peoples' eyes and minds to work classifying objects from the zillions of space telescope images, and which has now branched out in interesting ways. These do not get you outdoors the way Nature's Notebook will, though!

*Phenology refers to key seasonal changes in plants and animals from year to year—such as flowering, emergence of insects and migration of birds—especially their timing and relationship with weather and climate. --Nature's Notebook

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