Why phenology is cool

I have long been fascinated by the passing of the seasons. I grew up in Canada: winter was cold and snowy, spring was lush and green, summer was hot and humid, and in autumn the forest exploded in a riot of color.

Autumn at Prince Albert National Park, Saskatchewan, Canada

Autumn at Prince Albert National Park, Saskatchewan, Canada

I always thought that spring was maybe the most beautiful time of year. As days got longer and temperatures warmed, the winter’s snow would melt, and the birds would return (and make their presence known with loud chirping). By mid-May, bulbs – with pink, yellow, purple, and white flowers – would be coming up in Mom’s garden. The trees – oaks, maples, beeches – would start to put out leaves: so small and delicate at first, but they quickly grew to be larger than the size of my hand. After the grey of winter, the brilliant pale green of spring was always a delight.

Winter at Prince Albert National Park, Saskatchewan, Canada

Winter at Prince Albert National Park, Saskatchewan, Canada

But, I also have fond memories of the first cool nights in autumn, and the maple forests in Ontario turning luxurious shades of red, purple, and orange. I remember raking leaves (and —more fun – jumping into piles of leaves!) on sunny, dry fall days. Winter was around the corner… but soon again it would be spring.

Spring at Prince Albert National Park, Saskatchewan, Canada

Spring at Prince Albert National Park, Saskatchewan, Canada

Phenology is the study of seasonal rhythms. As a scientist, I now study these rhythms because of what they can tell us about the impacts of climate change on plants, animals, and ecosystems. There is a lot of evidence that over the last few decades spring is coming earlier, autumn is coming later, and the growing season is getting longer. This has huge implications for how ecosystems work — and by participating in Season Spotter, you help us better understand how the seasons might shift in response to future climate change.

Summer at Prince Albert National Park, Saskatchewan, Canada

Summer at Prince Albert National Park, Saskatchewan, Canada

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About Andrew Richardson

I am an Associate Professor in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University
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