Putting the Fun in Phenology

The UCSC Arboretum hosts monthly Phenology Walks where citizen scientists can learn how to gather data on plant response to climate change.

by Juliet Oshiro

Jan. 12, 2014—Watching the leaves change color, the hills green up after a rainstorm and the cherry blossoms burst open has long been enjoyed by nature lovers. However, in an era of climate change, the timing of these seasonal changes is shifting. Now, the much-loved tradition of watching the seasons change has become critical for documenting how plants and animals respond to climate change.

The science of observing seasonal changes and monitoring the timing of a species’ life cycle events is called phenology. For example, we can monitor a plant’s phenology by recording when it first develops leaves, first flowers, develops fruit, and when its leaves change color. The timing of, for example, when a plant first flowers, might vary from year to year, or at different locations. We study phenology to understand why this happens, so we are better able to predict how species might respond to future climate change.

As a PhD student at UC Santa Cruz, I study how flowering phenology responds to climate in the grasslands and sandhills of Santa Cruz County. Although my research is not yet complete, I have learned two important lessons. First, I still enjoy collecting phenology data even after three years of non-stop surveys. Second, in order to find patterns in phenology data, you need a vast number of observations from many years and locations. Therefore, I was inspired to create the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum Phenology Walk to teach the general public how simply watching the seasons change can contribute to scientific research.

We hold monthly workshops that give you the tools to collect phenology data that then becomes part of a national phenology database. This database, started by the USA National Phenology Network in 2007, has already contributed to important research, including projects that show that leaf coloring of paper birch will become later with future climate change, allergy-causing ragweed ranges will expand in the future, and that the best way to eliminate pesky buffelgrass is to mow in February and July. The data you collect has the potential to do great things!

Phenology Walk Workshops at the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum consist of a short instructional talk, followed by group data collection in the Arboretum’s beautiful Native Plant Garden. Regularly attending workshops is highly encouraged—it’s a great way to watch the seasons change!

No materials or experience necessary! Workshop dates, locations and details can be found on the Arboretum website.

To learn more about phenology visit the USA National Phenology Network’s Website.

Upcoming phenology walks and talks at the Arboretum:

Jan. 12 talk, Nature's Changing Calendar
Jan. 24 Phenology Walk & Workshop
Feb. 21 Phenology Walk & Workshop
March 14 Phenology Walk & Workshop