Project BudBurst

   I can tell you when my Greenland tulips, Strutter’s Ball daylily or perennial hibiscus bloomed in the last several years; when the grass first turned green this spring or when the chartreuse of the willows began to show. I’m a compulsive jotter. Maybe it’s the product of my training as a reporter combined with my gardening obsession that compels me to write down every observation. At least I’m not alone. Nationwide, nature-lovers, gardeners, scientists and students are taking note of what’s happening in the natural world around us.

   It’s all part of an effort called Project BudBurst – http://www.windows.ucar.edu/citizen_science/budburst/

 

  Thousands of volunteers across the country have been participating in the project, which tracks climate change by recording the timing of flowers and foliage. Project BudBurst, started as a pilot program in 2007 and operated by the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, Chicago Botanic Garden and University of Montana, is amassing thousands of observations from these “citizen scientists” to give researchers a detailed picture of our warming climate.  An analysis of thousands of Project BudBurst observations from last year and the 2007 pilot shows a baseline for the timing of key plant events. Volunteers can compare these observations to flowering and leafing in future years to measure the impact of a warming climate. Overall, 4,861 observations were reported online in 2008 from participants in every state except Hawaii.

 

   Rachael Drummond, who works in Media Relations for the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., got me in touch with an Eastern Iowa participant of Project BudBurst. Den Henrickson of Marion said he decided to get involved after hearing about the project on National Public Radio. Den is keeping track of three things in his yard: Eastern red cedar, Eastern white pine trees and buffalo grass. “I think this is a valuable way to leave a nugget of information for future generations,” he said. Den added that he knows some people are combing parks and ditches in search of plants, but he knew he would be more apt to follow through with something in his own backyard.

  

  The project works like this: Each participant in Project BudBurst selects one or more plants to observe. The Web site suggests more than 75 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 seed dispersal. When participants submit their records online, they can view maps of these phenophases across the United States.

 

   Den, 37, said he’s watching the white pine, for example, for the first needles, first pollination and first pine cones.  He joked that he should be watching the common dandelion, another of the options on the list. Because this is the first year Den has been involved, he didn’t have a comparison to previous years and hasn’t been recording any of the phases on his own. An information technology employee at ADM in Cedar Rapids, Den said he isn’t a “jotter” like me, but he is a data person. And that’s where he sees the importance of the project, especially when it comes to global warming. “I’m not into it for the politics of climate change,” he said. “In my mind the jury is still out on that. With the data, you get a clearer picture.”

 

   Here is more about Project BudBurst from the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research:

   The science of phenology, or tracking cyclic behavior among plants and animals, has a distinguished history. For centuries farmers, naturalists, and scientists have kept careful records of the phenology patterns of plants and animals. Farmers have long used their phenology knowledge to predict the best time for planting and harvesting crops and when to start expecting problems with insect pests.  Numerous plant and animal species throughout the world are being 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.  

   Researchers have already found some interesting comparisons from the last two years. In 2008, for example, forsythia in Chicago opened their first flowers from April 17 to 19—almost a week earlier than the 2007 flowering dates of April 23 to 25. In Wadsworth, Ohio, flowering dogwood reached full bloom on May 8, 2008, which was two weeks earlier than in 2007. They warned, however, that results about global warming couldn’t be drawn from just two years of data. Scientists will have to analyze observations for many years in order to distinguish the effects of long-term climate trends from year-to-year variations in weather.

   Project BudBurst is funded by the U.S. Geological Survey, National Ecological Observatory Network, National Geographic Education Foundation, and U.S. Forest Service. The USA National Phenology Network is one of Project BudBurst’s partners. The project is also supported by the National Science Foundation and is hosted on Windows to the Universe, a UCAR-based educational website.

Den with his trees in Marion, Iowa

Den with his trees in Marion, Iowa

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