Volunteers to Record Climate Clues in Spring Flowers

Citizen-scientist volunteers already are tracking climate change by observing and recording the timing of flowers and foliage.

Project BudBurst, operated by the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) and a team of partners including the U.S. Geological Survey's USA National Phenology Network, allows U.S. students, gardeners, and other citizens to enter their observations into an online database that, over time, will give researchers a more detailed picture of global climate change.

The project, which was launched on Feb. 15, will operate year-round so that early- and late-blooming species in different parts of the country can be monitored throughout their life cycles. Project BudBurst (www.budburst.org) builds on a pilot program carried out last spring, when a thousand participants recorded the timing of the leafing and flowering of hundreds of plant species in 26 states.

The Chicago Botanic Garden, University of Montana, and the USA National Phenology Network are collaborators on the project, which was funded in part with a grant from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. The project is also supported by the National Science Foundation and Windows to the Universe (www.windows.ucar.edu/), a UCAR-based Web site that will host the project online as part of its citizen science efforts.

"Climate change may be affecting our backyards and communities in ways that we don’t even notice," says Sandra Henderson project coordinator of UCAR's Office of Education and Outreach. "Project BudBurst is designed to help both adults and children understand the changing relationship among climate, seasons, and plants, while giving the participants the tools to communicate their observations to others. Based on the success of last year's pilot program, this project is capturing the public's imagination in a way we never expected."

Project Budburst is one of the citizen-science partnerships managed by the U.S. Geological Survey.

"By observing these cycles through time, researchers can better understand and predict global climate change and monitor drought conditions, wildfire risk, invasive species, and the spread of infectious diseases," said Jake Weltzin, executive director of the Phenology Network. "In the long-term -- and with enough data -- such information can help us better understand, mitigate and adapt to ongoing and future climate change."

To participate, volunteers select one or more plants to observe. They begin checking their plants at least a week before the average date of budburst -- the point when the buds have opened and leaves are visible. After budburst, participants continue to observe the tree or flower for later events, such as the first leaf, first flower and, eventually, seed dispersal. When participants submit their records online, they can view maps of these phenological events across the United States.

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