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A blossoming of research

Volunteers track the impact of climate change on U.S. flora

by Bob Henson

For more than a decade, University of Montana forestry professor Paul Alaback has been documenting the day of first bloom for some 100 flowering plant species on a trail at Mount Sentinel, adjacent to the UM campus. “There are very few published records on the phenological patterns of plants in the Rockies,” he says. “It’s been difficult to find comparable data to see if the patterns here are unique to our area or similar across the region.”

Students, gardeners, and other citizen scientists across the nation will soon help fill that void. Project BudBurst, a nationwide initiative launched by UCAR and a team of partners on 15 February, enables volunteers to track climate change by observing the timing of flowers and foliage. Participants enter their observations into an online database to give researchers a detailed picture of our warming climate.

paul alaback

Paul Alaback (University of Montana) on a wildflower-studded trail next to the UM campus. Volunteers check the trail three times a week to assess the timing of flowering plants. (Photo by Lisa Mills.)

Project BudBurst will operate year round so that early- and late-blooming species in different parts of the country can be monitored throughout their life cycles. It builds on a pilot program carried out last spring, when several thousand participants recorded the timing of the leafing and flowering of hundreds of plant species in 26 states.

“This project is capturing the public’s imagination in a way we never expected,” says project coordinator Sandra Henderson of UCAR’s Office of Education and Outreach.

The Chicago Botanic Garden and UM are collaborating with UCAR on Project BudBurst, which was funded with a grant from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. The project is also supported by NSF and Windows to the Universe, a UCAR-based Web site that will host the project online as part of its citizen science efforts.

Henderson and colleagues hatched the idea for Project BudBurst while serving on a citizen science panel for the USA–National Phenology Network. The panel’s two-page prospectus was expanded into a successful proposal by Kay Havens, who directs the Institute for Plant Conservation at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

“Climate change may be affecting our backyards and communities in ways that we don’t even notice,” says Henderson. “Project BudBurst is designed to help both adults and children understand the changing relationship among climate, seasons, and plants, while giving the participants the tools to communicate their observations to others.”

The science of phenology, or tracking cyclic behavior among plants and animals, has a distinguished history. In Japan and China, for example, the blossoming of cherry and peach trees is associated with ancient festivals, some of which extend back more than a thousand years. Cherry trees in Japan now bloom four days earlier than in the 1950s, according to the nation’s meteorological agency.

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 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 insects expect. Such asynchronous behavior has already been noted across many parts of the world.

Each participant in Project BudBurst selects one or more plants to observe. The project Web site suggests more than 60 widely distributed trees and flowers, with information on each. Users can add their own choices. During the 2007 pilot phase, dandelions and forsythia were the most commonly observed species.

meymaris and henderson

Project BudBurst’s leaders include Kirsten Meymaris and Sandra Henderson, both of UCAR Education and Outreach. (Photo by Carlye Calvin.)

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.

Along with the partners noted above, Project BudBurst collaborators include the Plant Conservation Alliance and the universities of Arizona; California, Santa Barbara; Wisconsin–Milwaukee; and Wisconsin–Madison.

In Montana, Alaback’s decade-long work has already found variations on the order of a month or more in the dates of first spring flowering. These correlate with local weather patterns as well as with El Niño, despite Montana’s distance from the Pacific Ocean. Alaback joined the BudBurst pilot program last spring and is looking forward to more involvement.

On the Web

Project BudBurst


“The Web resources and data protocols are impressive, so it looks to me like the project will result in really valuable data,” says Alaback. “It seems like a win-win situation for university scientists to participate. It helps provide useful documentation on the biological effects of climate change and is also an inviting way for students and the general public to become more familiar with, and excited about, ecology and science in general.”



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