Bursting buds spark interest in citizen science

Learn how rapid climate change is influencing timing of plant life events

Salmonberry flower seen on April 27, 2019, along a Cordova sidewalk Photo by James Ianni/Chugach National Forest SCA intern

While walking through Cordova, have you ever noticed the tiny blue flowers blooming in early May? Or while boating on the Copper River Delta have you noticed the yellow and purple flower buds bursting across the landscape?

As tiny and subtle as these moments and observations may be, you have witnessed the magic display of plants.

Observing plant life cycle events (such as budding flowers and seed heads), is as simple as noticing tiny, bell-shaped flowers while you are walking Crater Lake trail. You may hike this trail the same time every year and never notice these tiny, bell-shaped flowers. Or maybe you have visited the same place, during the same time each year, and noticed the flowers seem to be further along than they have been in the past.

One of the first to flower, western skunk cabbage at Nirvanna Park, on May 5, 2019.
Photo by James Ianni/Chugach National Forest SCA intern

This vibrant transformation that occurs throughout the seasons is symbol of phenology. The word phenology comes from the Greek word Phaino or Phainen meaning “shining or to show,” and the Latin word Logia meaning “the study of,” so phenology literally means “to study the shining show.” In more scientific terms, phenology means “the study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomenon, especially in relation to climate and plant and animal life.” Phenology is a rapidly emerging and growing field of science that has been gaining interest across the entire world. Professional research scientists, horticulturists and citizen scientists are focusing their attention toward phenology, namely, the timing at which plants and animals are going through different stages of their life cycles.

The life stages of plants are greatly dependent on two variables, temperature and precipitation. Have you ever heard “April showers bring May flowers?” This old saying is actually hinting at the dependence between plants and how they respond to seasonal changes in their environment.  When spring temperatures are warm and precipitation is high, plants are prompted to start growing. They respond by unfolding their leaves and producing flowers that can be pollinated.

Snow geese seen on April 16, 2019, flocking on the Copper River Delta.
Photo by James Ianni/Chugach National Forest SCA intern

With increased human impacts and rapidly changing climate, the timing of warm temperatures and heavy precipitation have changed. Spring has been arriving sooner, which in turn means that plants produce leaves and begin flowering earlier. This then effects wildlife species and pollinators that rely on plants as a food source.

Scientists and citizens alike have been interested in these changes and have devoted resources and research projects toward understanding the impact of different plant stages. Project Budburst, a citizen science project launched in 2007, is a collaboration between researchers, horticulturists, gardeners and citizen scientists to understand how human impacts and a rapidly changing climate are influencing the timing of plant life stages. Participants in Project Budburst collect real scientific data on the plants in their local area, recording the date at which they observed the emergence of a first flower or fruit of a given species of interest.

The U.S. Forest Service has coordinated a Project Budburst citizen science outing with Mt. Eccles Elementary School. Students learned about the important role plants play in the ecosystem, as well as how to participate in Project Budburst. They were encouraged to make their own observations of plants and document them into their nature journals.

A salmonberry study site photographed from April 25 through April 30, 2019, within Chugach National Forest.
Photo courtesy of Cordova Ranger District

In addition, the U.S. Forest Service recently launched a phenology pilot study. This study will examine the pollinator interactions of blueberries, salmonberries and sedges within the Chugach National Forest, using digital repeat photography via remote fixed cameras. The goal is to capture and count the timing of flowering and fruiting events within specific study sites.

Through this pilot study, the Forest Service will gather baseline information on plant phenology and pollinator interactions with species of interest that can be utilized for future management and ongoing phenology studies on the Chugach National Forest.

For more information or to get more involved in Project Budburst, visit budburst.org.

James Ianni is a Student Conservation Association ecology intern working for Chugach National Forest at the Cordova Ranger District Office.