Lilacs, Honeysuckle and Phenology

One of my favorite experiences as a science writer is asking a scientist to explain what I have assumed is a fundamental underlying bit of background, only to get the answer, “We don’t know.”

I’m reminded of that by an article in the latest Eos by Julio Betancourt about the efforts to create a national phenology network.

Phenology – the study of seasonal biological events, like animal migrations, plant flowerings, when trees drop their leaves – is one of those things I just assumed they (whoever “they” are) already knew everything about. It turns out, though, that there’s really very little systematic data collected on this.

It’s not that they don’t know anything. Dan Cayan et al. did a great paper five years ago using flowering times of lilacs and honeysuckles, along with spring snowmelt pulse, to show that spring is coming earlier here in the western United States.

The problem is that western lilac and honeysuckle records (they go back to 1957 and 1968 respectively) are the exception. Here’s Betancourt:

Presently, the incomplete nature of existing phonological records and the lack of adequate baselines hinder characterization of historic phenological variations in most locales and provide limited opportunities for extending variations observed across larger regions.

It seems, for example, that this would be a useful tool for doing what Cayan did – studying climate change.

Betancourt’s Eos piece grew out of a workshop in August (the meeting presentations are here and Roger Pielke Sr. blogged it here), where folks were trying to lay a foundation for a more coordinated national effort.

One of the attractive features to me is the possibility for public participation. The National Weather Service already has a national network of volunteer “coop” observers, and Betancourt suggests this could be a vehicle for volunteer phonological observations as well.

Think of it as open source science. I love it.


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