“Taking the pulse of the planet”

Mexican Oregano on March 20, 2013

Mexican Oregano on March 20, 2013

Phenology is the awkward title for a really cool science, one that we are all intimately familiar with. This is the science of the seasons, played out in the life cycles of plants and animals. Phenophases are life stages such as flowering, hibernation and migration. These stages repeat year after year and are activated by environmental cues. Warming temperatures cue trees to leaf out. Monsoon rains cue spadefoot toads to emerge from their burrows to mate and lay eggs in desert puddles.
Phenology can be considered a lens for observing and experiencing nature. And, the carefully recorded observations of seasonal changes prove invaluable to farmers, rangers, bee keepers, and many scientists. Thousands of visitors visit Washington D.C. in the spring to see the cherry blossoms. Phenology helps festival planners gauge when the blooms will be most spectacular.
The National Phenology Network was formed in 2007 and provides an online data base of over 900 plant and animal species within the U.S. Over 9,000 observers currently contribute local data to the network. These citizen scientists check regularly on plants and animals at sites near them and record observations of activity, reproduction and development. You and I can join the network and post our observations as well. We’ll be helping researchers better understand how plants and animals are responding to our changing environment, provided we can make the commitment to keep up with the project over time.
I’m excited to get started. I attended a National Phenology Network seminar sponsored by Maricopa County Extension over the weekend. We practiced observing green plants for stages of leafing, bloom and fruit. We learned to watch for specific activities of birds, insects and animals such as feeding, nesting and migration. Independently we’ll choose a handful of plants to monitor in our own backyards. Once a week, or more, we’ll take our checklists out to observe the life stages of the plants, to listen for birds and watch for insects. NPN’s Nature’s Notebook provides ample information and assistance on logging this data through the website.
Using this tool to track seasonal changes over time feels like something important I can do for the planet. The information gathered by citizen scientists, be they nature geeks like me or classrooms of students, can be used to answer scientific questions. Participants of the Tucson Phenology Trail are tracking when mesquite beans are ready for harvest. This information can help ensure beans are gathered at their peak, yet before monsoon moisture contributes to spoilage. There are countless ways local observations can be used in larger programs, and for children phenology activities can be used to promote science and climate literacy.
NPN is establishing a Phoenix Phenology Trail, a series of locations with specific plants tagged for observations by visitors. In this way our local seasonal changes can be tracked and a host of nature enthusiasts, children and adults, will have a new reason to get out and enjoy the outdoors. The first official location of the Phoenix Trail will be the gardens at the Maricopa County Extension on Broadway in Phoenix.

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2 responses to ““Taking the pulse of the planet”

  1. Fantastic! I’m watching the phenology in my yard now that I am much more familiar, thanks to you, to the term and its meaning.

  2. BRAVO! I am so excited about this….Thanks for this very informative piece that I plan to steal to help those I am in contact with to understand the depth of the subject….please post some of your observations as you move along.
    BRAVO!!!!!!!
    Megan

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