Here’s your chance to be a phenologist

Minnesotans who can tell a dandelion from a lilac or even a Western serviceberry from a Kinnikinnick can participate in a national study designed to help document climate change.

Project BudBurst recruits average folks to measure the dates that plants leaf, bud, flower, disperse seeds and drop their leaves. It’s part of the revival of an old idea called citizen science, where you, the citizen, does the work.

Each person picks one species (or more) to watch. Observations are entered into a website and a mapping system tracks the lifecycles of the plants across the United States.

There are 32 species found in Minnesota on the BudBurst list. They range from trees such as the red maple and Douglas fir to flowering plants such as the trout lily and jack-in-the-pulpit. The branch of science is called phenology, which is the study of the life cycles of plants.

What to look for
Researchers are looking for several phenomena; as the Earth’s climate changes, some plants respond by extending their growing seasons. Others shift their historic ranges farther north, or to higher altitudes. In Japan, for example, researchers reported that leaves on Japanese maple trees are changing colors 15 days earlier, and cherry trees are flowering on average four days earlier than 50 years ago.

A pilot BudBurst program in 2007 involved several thousand people in 26 states. “There has been an overwhelming response to this project,” said coordinator Sandra Henderson.

“Climate change may be affecting our backyards and communities in ways that we don’t even notice,” she said in announcing the program. “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. Based on the success of last year’s pilot program, this project is capturing the public’s imagination in a way we never expected.”

Project BudBurst is in the tradition of citizens acting as phenologists that goes back centuries; think of every farmer who ever lived.

If you want to participate, get ready quickly. Organizers want you to check your plants at least a week before the average date of budburst — the moment that buds open and leaves can be seen. The project will operate year round.

A Colorado-based consortium of 70 colleges, including the University of Minnesota, sponsor the project. Funding also comes from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the National Science Foundation.

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