Phenology is the study of the timing of biological events. From butterfly migrations, to squirrel hibernation and springtime budburst, organisms take cues from their environment for when to begin different life stages. Temperature is one of the most important cues, and for this reason phenology has been called “perhaps the simplest process in which to track changes in the ecology of species in response to climate change” by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In this era of unprecedented human influence on climate, organisms’ role as indicators of a changing climate is more important than ever. And beyond simply reflecting climate change, the phenology of plants worldwide may even have a feedback effect on climate change, influencing the future progression of global temperatures.
If plant phenology is such an integral part of climate change, are we watching closely enough? Scientists and amateur naturalists have been making observations of plant phenology for hundreds of years if not longer, recording events such as cherry blossom flowering in Japan. These long term records give an invaluable perspective on climate of the distant past. But as anthropogenic climate change accelerates, so do our methods of phenology observation.
Most people have heard the saying that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” However in the wake of the digital revolution, most pictures today are actually worth millions of pixels. It turns out that all of these pixels can yield a wealth of plant phenology data, from cameras that snap photos of the same plants day after day, year after year. These multiyear records can help determine the timing of phenology events such as leaf out in springtime and leaf drop in fall.
Taking advantage of this image based method, the PhenoCam project established cameras in key biomes throughout the United States and world. We also work on developing image processing techniques to glean phenological information from the archive of images. Recently, I used PhenoCam imagery in my research about how the phenology of deciduous forests differs from place to place around the U.S. and Canada.
Time lapse photography of plants also preserves a directly interpretable record of plant phenology, which comes in handy when image processing methods fail. Unlike a plant specimen that permanently stopped development when it was collected, an archive of images allows a plant’s development through time to be revisited and reevaluated by multiple researchers, from the convenience of the computer and device screens that now pervade our day to day lives.
The Season Spotter project gives volunteer citizen scientists a platform to participate, by engaging with a revolutionary type of phenology data and contributing knowledge relevant to understanding climate change. I hope you will enjoy Season Spotter as both a way to see beautiful images of natural areas while you’re at home or on a break at work, and a way to help advance climate change science.