A national program is hoping to recruit a new corps of 100,000 citizen scientists to monitor climate impacts on the living world.
Valerie Hilt’s yard brims with hollyhocks, hellebores and hyacinths. But it’s her lilac bush that landed the Port Angeles great-grandmother in the annals of science.
For 35 springs, Hilt has logged the date when the first leaf unfurls on the 20-foot-tall shrub. She also takes note of the first fragrant blossom and other milestones, like peak bloom.
“It doesn’t take any great amount of time,” she said. “I’m always outside looking around anyway.”
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Hilt, 70, is one of the last remaining lilac watchers in a network that once included 2,500 volunteers across the Western U.S. Their handwritten postcards grew into a powerful database that researchers have used to document how rising temperatures are hastening the onset of spring.
Now, a national program is hoping to recruit a new corps of 100,000 citizen scientists to monitor climate impacts on the living world. This time, volunteers can gather data on a wide range of plant species, from dandelions to Douglas fir. Next year, the network will expand to include birds, bugs and other animals.
“It’s really measuring the pulse of the natural system and how it’s responding to climate change,” said Daniel Cayan, a climate researcher at Scripps Institution of Oceanography who analyzed the lilac data.
“You don’t have to be a scientist to make these kinds of observations … and it’s amazing what can emerge from them.”
Participants in the National Phenology Network will enter observations online, and the data will be freely available.
Earlier springs noted
Phenology is the study of life-cycle timing, from bird migrations and tadpole metamorphosis to the explosion of wildflowers in mountain meadows. Researchers are discovering that even tiny changes in temperature can disrupt that timing, pushing some species toward extinction and favoring others.
“Temperature governs every single biological reaction,” said Lisa Crozier, a research ecologist at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle.
Warmer temperatures allowed a tawny brown butterfly called the sachem skipper to expand into Eastern Washington in the 1990s, Crozier found. But sockeye salmon in the Columbia River, which are now returning from the ocean nearly 11 days earlier on average than in the 1940s, may suffer from having less time to feed before spawning, she said.
Dozens of studies concur that the onset of spring — as measured by the response of plants, animals and ecosystems — is about a week earlier than it was 50 years ago. A difference of a few degrees or days may seem inconsequential, but timing is everything for species like the pied flycatchers that migrate between Africa and the Netherlands.
The birds used to arrive in Europe and nest in time for their chicks to take advantage of a seasonal caterpillar explosion. But the caterpillars now peak 16 days earlier. As a result, chicks are starving and some flycatcher populations have plummeted 90 percent.
“These mismatches in timing could be happening all over,” said Jake Weltzin of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), executive director of the Tucson, Ariz.,-based phenology network. But many changes are going unnoticed, because so few people have been looking in a systematic way, he added.
The best historical data on plants and animals is from Europe. Vineyard records in France’s Burgundy region reach back to the 1300s — and show a one- to two-week quickening in the grapes’ life cycle. Monks across the continent kept meticulous crop diaries that span centuries. And in England, armies of amateur naturalists still document nightingale songs, cuckooflower buds and other natural harbingers, as their ancestors did for generations.
By comparison, historical records of plants and animals are rare in the United States. What exists — like the lilac data and annual bird counts — corroborates warming’s impacts. The phenology network is shaking the bushes for file cards and notebooks that may be sitting in someone’s basement or gathering dust on a museum shelf.
“Maybe there are people in Seattle who have been tracking skunk cabbage, or farmers keeping track of when they harvest wheat,” Weltzin said. “We want to rescue those data sets.”
West is warming quickly
Climatologist Greg Jones at Southern Oregon University recently discovered data from the 1850s recorded by Oregon’s first winemaker, Peter Britt. “It’s almost like being a detective,” said Jones. “You have to find the keeper of the information.”
The University of Washington’s Burke Museum has boxes bursting with 12,000 index cards, each the record of a bird nest monitored by students and volunteers. A collection of eggs, some dating back to the 1800s, provides another window into the region’s biological past. But few researchers have tapped the treasure trove, largely because the museum hasn’t been able to digitize the data.
Historical records from Western North America are particularly valuable, said USGS climate scientist Julio Betancourt, who helped launch the phenology network. “The West is warming up faster than anywhere else in the country, and faster than most places in the world,” he said.
Scientists believe natural climate cycles are playing a role, but man-made greenhouse warming also is a major factor.
UW aquatic ecologist Daniel Schindler has tracked the impact on Lake Washington, where records go back 50 years. The lake’s spring cycle of warming and algae growth now start three weeks earlier than it used to. That’s bad news for water fleas that miss out on food because the timing of their hatch is now often out of sync with the algae bloom. The water fleas help keep the lake clear by consuming algae and also serve as food for fish, Schindler said.
With thousands of volunteers coast-to-coast making similar observations when the phenology network is in full swing, it will be possible to expand beyond a regional focus to look at the country as a whole, Weltzin said.
The work could have practical benefits, such as development of pollen forecasts to alert allergy sufferers when cottonwoods are about to let loose, he said. Better understanding of the life cycles of noxious weeds could help in control efforts. And a study still under way finds that when lilacs bloom early, it’s a sign that a bad fire season is ahead.
Some of Hilt’s bulbs came up earlier than usual this spring, but so far the lilac is still hunkered down. Despite the occasional cool year, she’s convinced her corner of the world is getting warmer.
“Our winters are not what they used to be,” said Hilt, who has always been attuned to the changing seasons. Being a lilac-watcher has sharpened her eye for detail, she said, urging others to follow in her footsteps.
“It’s quite interesting and watching for that first leaf or first bud gives you something to look forward to.”
Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or firstname.lastname@example.org