UCSB researchers have recently pioneered the new Phenology Stewardship Program, a novel field of study meant to measure the subtle effects of global climate change on nature.

Phenology studies the timing of seasonal events, which includes flowering, breeding and migration. Over the last decade, phenological studies worldwide have shifted focus to the effects of climate change on these biological patterns. For example, when caterpillars become butterflies too soon, scientists see evidence that seasons are changing at different times than they historically have, which indicates that the world is heating up.

The broader goal is to predict nature’s reaction to future fluctuations in the climate. Susan Mazer, a UCSB professor of Ecology, Evolution and Marine Biology and vice chair of the U.S. National Phenology Network initiated the program – which is the first of its kind in the nation – with graduate student Brian Haggerty last spring.

Flower Power

Haggerty and Mazer are members of the Education, Citizen Science and Outreach Committee of the U.S. NPN, which works nationwide to train undergraduates, scientists and community members to record seasonal observations and report them to an online database called Project BudBurst.

Haggerty said he spends time training UCSB undergraduate interns and pre-service teachers in the Gevirtz Graduate School of Education. The bulk of his research takes place at UCSB’s Coal Oil Point Natural Reserve.

“We are examining current flowering times for 20 species of plants at Coal Oil Point Natural Reserve and comparing those flowering times to historical flowering times that I can determine using preserved plants in the herbarium,” Haggerty said.

Mazer said recording phenological observations can impart valuable information about the rate at which the earth is warming according to how fast these events take place.

“What we need to do to detect the effects of global warming on plants is to compare the flowering times of species today to their flowering times in the past,” Mazer said. “We can detect this change by comparing the phenology of species now growing at Coal Oil Point to their past flowering time.”

The Early Bird Catches the Worm?

Worldwide, scientists have discovered disconcerting signs that climate change is already affecting the onset of spring. Caterpillars are becoming butterflies sooner, and bird migration patterns are shifting as well, Haggerty said.

“Winters are warming more rapidly than the other seasons, and when you have a warmer winter you get an earlier spring,” Haggerty said. “Not surprisingly, many wild species are responding to an earlier spring by beginning their springtime activities earlier.”

Associated Students Coastal Fund Chair Cheryl Chen said anyone can enter phenological data into the BudBurst database in an effort to assist scientists in understanding global weather changes.

“This national effort to track the seasonal changes of our environment will be critical in understanding the effects of climate change,” Chen said.

A Blossoming Field

Aiming to promote student interest in ecological issues, Chen said the A.S. Coastal Fund allocated about $11,000 to the program Spring Quarter.

“We hope the stewardship program enables students to become more aware of their natural environment and the rhythms of nature,” Chen said. “They will learn that anyone is able to contribute to science and to a larger movement to understand our world.”

With UCSB’s successful model as a guide, interest in phenology stewardship programs is blossoming, Haggerty said.

“We feel like we are really having a genuine impact on how people are connecting with nature,” Haggerty said.