Archive for the ‘Climate & Weather’ Category

Learn how climate change affects plant life with AMC Mountain Watch

By May 19th, 2014 at 2:47 pm | Comment 1

Track phenology events in Appalachian mountains and contribute to climate change research with Mountain Watch!

Want more spring citizen science? We’ve got you covered through April showers and May flowers.

There is nothing more rewarding than taking in the view from above tree-line. A challenging hike always seems like a distant memory after gazing upon the landscape below, especially if it’s the White Mountains of NH. Now, the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) is calling on visitors of these Northeastern peaks to help them observe plant life through the Mountain Watch program. This citizen science initiative aims to investigate how the life cycles of alpine plants are affected by climate change.


View from the Franconia Ridge Trail, one of the alpine sites on the Mountain Watch list.

To do this, Mountain Watch asks participants to record plant phenology, which is the study of how plant life cycle events, such as flowering or producing fruit, are affected by changes in environmental conditions, including temperature and precipitation. Plant life cycles are very sensitive to small variations, so even subtle changes across seasons can be observed. For example, a dry summer might cause the leaves on trees to change color earlier in the fall. When recorded over many years, these phenology records can start to uncover long term trends in the climate and help scientists to model the effects of climate change in a certain region.

Diapensia, one of the sensitive alpine flowers being monitored.

Since the AMC is based in the Northeastern portion of the Appalachian Mountains, the focus of Mountain Watch is on alpine plants that are found exclusively at high elevations in the north. The program is targeting these alpine species specifically because they have adapted to survive only in harsh, low temperature conditions and cannot thrive in warmer climates. As such, they are especially sensitive to climate change. Georgia Murray, a scientist a the AMC, describes that the Mountain Watch observations help to make up “really rich mountain data sets” that, paired with temperature observations from the Mt. Washington observatory, help to understand how climate change has affected the environment in the Northeast.

This year, the Mountain Watch program is joining an exciting new collaboration called A.T. Seasons (A.T. for Appalachian Trail), which is working to develop sites for citizen scientists to collect plant phenology data all along the Appalachian Trail. Mountain Watch joined this project to get more people involved, and as Georgia explains, to “utilize the A.T. as a north-south corridor in understanding phenology in climate change.” The goal of A.T. Seasons is to monitor the same type of plants along the whole Appalachian Trail to better understand the interplay of climate and phenology across geographical regions, as well as in relation to climate change. As alpine species only grow on the northern section of the A.T., they will not be included in this portion of the program; however, Georgia notes that Mountain Watch will still maintain the “alpine focus that is unique to the AMC and our region in the northeast” in addition to the A.T. Seasons plant list.

The incorporation of A.T. Seasons into the Mountain Watch program allows more citizen scientists to be involved, as the new initiative provides options for different levels of commitment – there is an Android app for easily making one-time measurements and more in-depth training courses for people who want to make long-term observations. The alpine flower portion of the Mountain Watch program does require more “dedicated volunteers,” as Georgia says, who can commit to regularly visiting the remote mountain sites, but there are many educational tools on the website for those who just want to learn more.

So grab those hiking boots and get outdoors! Spring and summer are the best times to observe plant phenology, and the sweeping views of the White Mountains await.

Top image: Sean O’Brien via Flickr

Bottom image: AMC Mountain Watch 

Emily Lewis is a PhD candidate in chemistry at Tufts University, where she analyzes industrially important catalysts on the nanoscale. She received her BS and MS degrees from Northeastern University, and her thesis work examined fuel cell catalysts under real operating conditions. She loves learning about energy and the environment, exploring science communication, and investigating the intersection of these topics with the policy world. When she’s not writing or in the lab, you’ll probably spot Emily at the summit of one of the White Mountains in NH. Follow her: @lewisbase,


First Leaf, First Bud, First Fruit: Project Budburst

By May 9th, 2014 at 9:53 pm | Comment

Record plant observations and learn how changes in climate and habitat affect a plant’s lifecycle with Project Budburst.

Track the phenology of plants and animals with these citizen science projects.

Participants record observations for Project BudBurst.

Participants record observations for Project BudBurst. Photo courtesy of Dennis Ward, of Project BudBurst.

Gardeners worldwide have their favorite sayings about when to plant, when to reap, how much rain is going to fall, or how dry it will be.  For example, according to one proverb, “If the oak’s before the ash, then you’ll only get a splash; but if the ash precedes the oak, then you may expect a soak.”  Typically tested by time, and cast over generations by people who till the land, they identify the prime time to sow or harvest. According to an English folk-rhyme, “After a famine in the stall, (bad hay crop) comes a famine in the hall, (bad corn crop).”  Endemic to regions around the world, the words often identify both the geographic locale and the season. Gardeners have not only learned the sign for a wet spring or a dry summer, but they also know that there is a connection between the first leaf, the first flower, the first fruit and the corresponding season. Scientists call the study of this timing phenology, and it is the primary concern of a public participation project called Project BudBurst (official site).

Various methods of reporting for Project BudBurst. Photo courtesy of Project BudBurst

Various methods of reporting for Project BudBurst. Photo courtesy of Project BudBurst.

Project BudBurst  is a national field campaign designed to engage the public in the collection of important ecological data about plant phenology. The project makes the data freely available so that others can make discoveries from it, and publish and write about what they find. Rather than looking for the next “big” thing, the team focuses their efforts on developing and building new and better tools, and opportunities for people across the spectrum, from educators and scientists to students and the public, to explore and engage with the data so that they can make their own discoveries. According to Sarah Newman, a citizen science coordinator with Project BudBurst, “Project BudBurst participants have been sharing their observations of plants with us since 2007. Most climate change studies need about 30 years of data to really start saying something concrete about the effects of climate change, so we have many years of data collection ahead of us yet. That being said, we are starting to see trends for some plants that show they are blooming earlier than was historically true.” One example reported in an American Scientist article records how a group of researchers modeled the timing of cherry-blossom peak bloom for trees in the Washington, DC region under various scenarios of climate change. Project Budburst data has also been used in a number of regional historical studies. Take for instance a 2012 study, in which data collected in the Chicago region was compared with records accumulated by botanists Floyd Swink and Gerry Wilhelm. “Swink and Wilhelm collected phenology observations from the mid-1950s to the early 1990s. Of the 15 local species for which we had good contemporary and historical data,” said the authors, “13 had an earlier first flower in one or more years between 2007 and 2012 than was ever observed by Swink and Wilhelm.” Operating within these timescales, the data begins to reveal the effects of climate change on plants.

Learning about phenology. Photo courtesy of Carlye Calvin, University Center for Atmospheric Research, Project BudBurst.

Learning about phenology. Photo courtesy of Carlye Calvin, University Center for Atmospheric Research, Project BudBurst.

An important element of Project BudBurst is science education. Dr. Sandra Henderson, the project director, enjoys working on Project BudBurst because it allows her to combine her background in biogeography and experience in developing climate change educational programs. When questioned about data verification—a common bugbear for volunteer-collected data, she said, “Traditionally, we had an annual ‘clean up’ of the data base by plant scientists associated with Project BudBurst. These subject matter experts helped in making decisions of what data would be shared each year. As our program has grown, this has proven to be somewhat inefficient. For future campaigns, we will be exploring online approaches to data verification.” Newman is also excited about Project BudBurst’s education initiative, which will facilitate data collection. “Just this week we announced our first cohort of Certified Instructors who will be able to offer presentations and workshops about Project BudBurst in their communities and local areas. Because our program is entirely online and we have a small staff, we are thrilled that these instructors will be able to create personal connections and offer in-person opportunities to engage with Project BudBurst across the country.” (You can learn more about these instructors here) A folk saying used in the Midwest goes like this, “When maples flower and woodchucks dig up the hillsides, ducks are scouting for nesting sites, and onion sets can be tucked into the garden soil.” As Project Budburst collects data to inform climate change studies, what happens to these sayings as phenology keeps pace? Do they migrate with the warming spring? Will this become a northeastern quote, or will it just fade into the mists of time?


Chung, U., L. Mack, J. I. Yun, and S.-H. Kim. 2011. Predicting the timing of cherry blossoms in Washington, DC and mid-Atlantic states in response to climate change.
PLoS ONE 6: e27439. doi:10.1371/journal. pone.0027439

Images: Project BudBurst

Ian Vorster has a MS in Environmental Communications and most recently served as director of communications at the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts. Prior to that he worked in the health communications field. Ian has served as a designer, writer, photographer, editor and project leader in the field of science, and now works freelance in a blend of these roles. You can see more of Ian’s work at 

3 Citizen Science Projects You Can Do on Earth Day

By April 22nd, 2014 at 10:00 am | Comment 1

African Elephants

African elephants in the Zuurberg Mountains, South Africa.

It’s Earth Day! Celebrate the planet we live on with these amazing environmental citizen science projects!

The Earth Day Network records that in 1970 the average American was funneling leaded gas through massive V8 engine blocks, and industry was exhausting toxic smoke into the air and chemical slush into the water with little legal consequence or bad press.

The nation was largely oblivious to environmental concerns, but Rachel Carson’s New York Times bestseller Silent Spring in 1962 set the stage for something new, as she raised public awareness and concern for living organisms, the environment and public health.

Earth Day was born in 1970 and it built upon a new sense of awareness, channeling the energy of a restless youth, and putting environmental concerns front and center. Now it is celebrated in some way in 192 countries across the world. As we celebrate Earth Day 2014, here is a selection of citizen science projects you can choose from, and they are perfectly suited to both the young and young at heart.

1. Mammal Map is a project that helps to update the distribution records of African mammal species. Based out of the University of Cape Town, you can add recent photos of animals photographed in Africa.

2. Based in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, YardMap allows participants to map habitats in your own backyard. After signing up for the free online project, participants zoom in on satellite images to construct maps of their yards, local parks, workplaces, local cemeteries, or any other green space they know well. They mark the maps to show areas of lawn, buildings, native plants, feeders, and other landscape features. Scientists and participants can see how the spaces connect to form larger landscapes and share information about improving habitats at home and across communities.

3. By 2050 we will need to feed more than 2 billion additional people on the Earth. By playing Cropland Capture, you will help improve basic information about where cropland is located on the Earth’s surface. Using this information, researchers will be better equipped at tackling problems of future food security and the effects of climate change on future food supply.

Image:  Ian Vorster

Ian Vorster has a MS in Environmental Communications and most recently served as director of communications at the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts. Prior to that he worked in the health communications field. Ian has served as a designer, writer, photographer, editor and project leader in the field of science, and now works freelance in a blend of these roles. You can see more of Ian’s work at

Citizen Science on the Radio: WHYY Features Spring Projects!

By March 20th, 2014 at 9:54 pm | Comment


Illustration by Tony Auth

This week on The Pulse and SciStarter’s segment about citizen science, producer Kimberly Haas highlights some spring projects that you can get involved in this season.

Spring is in the air, and so it citizen science! As SciStarter founder Darlene Cavalier told WHYY, “Springtime is the time for citizen science [...] So you can find, in our project finder, everything from collecting information about precipitation to checking out bird nests and looking for incubating eggs.”

Listen to a teaser of the piece below, then read WHYY’s related blog post to learn more about the variety of projects you can get involved in. You’ll find the full audio there.

Here’s where you can help. If you’re a citizen science researcher, project manager, or participant in the PA, NJ, or DE areas, we want to hear from you! If you have an interesting story to share about a citizen science project or experience, let us know. Send your stories for consideration to



WHYY (90.9 FM in Philly) Friday on-air schedule:

6-9 a.m. – Morning Edition
9-10 a.m. – The Pulse
10 a.m. to 12 p.m. – Radio Times
10 a.m. following Sunday  – The Pulse (rebroadcast)

Spring is Here!

By March 20th, 2014 at 4:10 pm | Comment

The equinox is upon us. Budding trees and baby birds will soon greet us. As the weather gets warmer, be ready to Spring into action with these five springtime citizen science projects!

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Project BudBurst

Help scientists understand the impacts of global climate change! Report data on the timing of leafing, flowering, and fruiting of plants in your area. To participate, you simply need access to a plant. Get started!


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Camel Cricket Census

The Your Wild Life team needs citizen scientists to share observations and photos of camel crickets in your home! Many keen citizen observers have reported a preponderance of camel crickets, and interesting patterns in cricket distribution have emerged! Get started!


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Where’s the Elderberry Longhorn Beetle?

This beautiful beetle species lived throughout eastern North America but in recent decades it’s all but disappeared. To help solve this mystery, a Drexel University researcher wants you to be on the lookout for this beauty of a beetle now through June. Get started!


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CoCoRaHS:Rain, Hail, Snow Network

When a rain, hail, or snow storm occurs, take measurements of precipitation from your location.Your data will be used by the National Weather Service, meteorologists, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, mosquito control, ranchers and farmers, and more! Get started!


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Help scientists understand how environmental change and habitat destruction affect breeding birds. Visit nests once or twice each week and monitor their progression from incubating eggs to fuzzy chicks to fully feathered adults. Get started!


See how WCVE’s Science Matter’s is also jumping for  citizen science this spring with FrogWatchUSA!

Want to bring citizen science into the classroom? Check out our Educators Page to learn more about how to integrate projects into your curriculum.

SciStarter and Azavea (with support from Sloan Foundation) spent the last year investigating developments in software, hardware, and data processing capability for citizen science. Here’s what we found.

Calling hackers and developers! SciStarter is organizing pop-up hackathons to develop open APIs and other tools to help citizen scientists. Contact the SciStarter Team if you’d like to join us in Boston, Philly, NYC, or Washington, DC in April! Email

Want your project featured in our newsletter? Contact