Be a Citizen Scientist

Take the pulse of the planet by monitoring your backyard.

April 18, 2011

Have you noticed your favorite flower (or most despised weed) sprouting a little earlier than it used to? Heard frogs calling sooner in the spring over the past few years? These trends could be linked to climate change, and scientists want your help in tracking them. The USA-National Phenology Network (USA-NPN), a group of government, academic, and citizen scientists, has started a new national program that will rely on volunteers to report their observations of flowering, fruiting, and other seasonal events that will help scientists get a more accurate picture of our changing planet. “This program is designed for people interested in participating in climate change science, not just reading about it,” says Jake Weltzin, U.S. Geological Survey scientist and USA-NPN executive director.

THE DETAILS: The program welcomes anyone from beginners to PhDs who want to volunteer to provide useful data to researchers, managers, policy makers, and other monitoring programs. This season, the USA-NPN program will focus on plants, but Abraham Miller-Rushing, PhD, coordinator of the Wildlife Phenology Program at USA-NPN and The Wildlife Society, says volunteers will have the opportunity to track amphibians, birds, fish, insects, mammals, and reptiles next year. “All people need is a plant that they want to observe and access to the Internet to submit their observations,” Miller-Rushing says. The USA-NPN is based at The University of Arizona in Tucson and collaborates with the U.S. Geological Survey and other agencies and groups.


WHAT IT MEANS: You don’t have to go to school to study phenology (that’s the study of recurring plant and animal life cycle events) in order to participate. You just have to pay attention. “The most common observation is that spring events, such as leaf out, flowering, bird migrations, frog calling, and butterfly emergence are all occurring earlier now than they did in the past,” Miller-Rushing says. Changes in these patterns greatly affect our economies and health, so it’s in all of our best interest to wake up and smell the roses (and make a note of it).

Here’s what you need to know about volunteering in the program:

• Take your pick. Select a plant or two, and note when different stages of its growth occur throughout the season. Donating just a few minutes of your time every week can help scientists fill the gaps.

• Keep track. The USA-NPN website provides printable instructions and a place to enter your observations.

• Know you’re making a difference. Scientists already know that flowering and bird migrations are changing in response to climate change, Miller-Rushign says, but their understanding is extremely limited. Citizen scientists will provide thousands of pieces of the puzzle. “These data can then be used to predict the onset of allergy season, manage invasive species, assess species vulnerability to climate change, and as a part of many other applications in the fields of health, agriculture, recreation, and conservation,” Miller-Rushing says.

Sign up for this season’s monitoring at the USA-NPN website.