Volunteers Track Climate Clues in Spring Flowers

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Thousands of volunteers are taking part in a nationwide initiative to track climate change by recording the timing of flowering, leafing and other plant life-cycle events.

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Now in its second full year, Project BudBurst is successfully amassing observations from students, gardeners and other citizen scientists in every state to give researchers a detailed picture of our warming climate.

The project is a collaboration by the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), the Chicago Botanic Garden and the University of Montana. Results from the first year will be released this month.

“Climate change may be affecting flowers and trees in our own neighborhoods in ways that we don't even notice," says project director Sandra Henderson of UCAR's Office of Education and Outreach. "Project BudBurst is designed to help both adults and children understand the impacts of climate on plants and to communicate their observations on the Web."

Each participant selects one or more plants to observe. The project’s website suggests more than 75 widely distributed trees and flowers, with information on each. Users can add their own choices.

Participants begin checking their plants at least a week prior to 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.

"Project BudBurst provides an exciting opportunity for the public, particularly children, to contribute to scientific research on the effects of global climate change on plants," says Kayri Havens, a senior scientist with the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Numerous plant and animal species throughout the world are affected by climate change. Some plants respond to warmer temperatures by extending their growing seasons. Others shift their ranges toward the poles or to higher elevations.

At the same time, many insects breed and disperse based on regular cycles of sunlight rather than temperature. This can cause a mismatch between the behavior of pollinating insects, such as bees, and flowers that bloom earlier than the insects expect. Such asynchronous behavior has already been noted across many parts of the world.

Photo © University Corporation for Atmospheric Research

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