Historical and Volunteer Climate Data, with Cary Mock and Theresa Crimmins

This episode of Warm Regards continues our exploration of the often unexpected stories behind climate data. First we explore historical climatology records with Dr. Cary Mock. These are the measurements and observations of things like wind, pressure, rainfall, and more found in archives and historical societies around the world. Then, we turn to the present and talk with Dr. Theresa Crimmins, Director of the National Phenology Network, about how volunteers can contribute their own climatological and ecological observations. In doing so, they can better understand not only how climate change is affecting their immediate environment, but also assist in large-scale climate change research.

Show Notes

For more on the weather of The Long Winter and the work of meterologist Barbara Mayes Boustead, check out this Boing Boing article by Maggie Koerth. You can also check out Barbara’s series of recorded presentations about the weather of the Little House books here.

This essay on the Little House books and the “myth of white self-sufficiency” explores the ways that the authors’ political agendas heavily influenced the series.

To learn more about the Schoolhouse Blizzard and its influence on weather forecasting, check out David Laskin’s book, The Children’s Blizzard and this interactive website by the National Weather Service (complete with historical accounts).

To learn more (including some neat photos of historical documents) about the ‘Year Without a Summer,’ check out this website from the Massachusetts Historical Society.

You can learn more about Dr. Cary Mock’s historical climatology work, including photos of the kinds of documents he works with, at his website and follow him on Twitter.

Here are some other community and citizen science projects mentioned in the episode that you can get involved in:

Zooniverse
SciStarter
ISeeChange
CoCoRHAS (Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network)

To learn more about the work of Dr. Theresa Crimmins, you can visit her website and follow her on Twitter.

Visit the National Phenology Network’s website to learn more about the organization’s history and current projects, including the visualization tool mentioned in the episode.

To start contributing your own observations through Nature’s Notebook, visit the project’s website or download the app on the iOS App Store or Google Play.

Please consider becoming a patron on Patreon to help us pay our producer, Justin Schell, our transcriber, Joe Stormer, and our social media coordinator, Katherine Peinhardt, who are all working as volunteers. Your support helps us not only to stay sustainable, but also to grow.

Find Warm Regards on the web and on social media:
Web: www.WarmRegardsPodcast.com
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The full transcript of this episode can be found below.

Jacquelyn Gill
Growing up in Vermont, several of my friends lived in old farm houses that had an unusual feature: a door on the second floor, that opened to the outside. There wasn’t a missing porch; these doors were just a leftover from pre-industrial times — the thrifty Yankee solution to getting out of a house buried by snow, so you could milk the cows and feed the horses without having to dig yourself out first.

I was a high school student in the 90s when public awareness of climate change was just starting to grow, though discussions about the environment were often more focused on things like the hole in the ozone layer or deforestation in the Amazon. So when we started to hear about record-breaking warm years towards the end of the decade, it made intuitive sense to me; all those doors to nowhere that had gone unused for decades, remnants of a colder, snowier time.

Like so many kids, I’d also read the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, and The Long Winter had left an especially strong impression on me. It depicts a brutal winter in the plains of South Dakota, where it snowed so much that the trains bearing food and other supplies couldn’t get through. Laura and her family nearly starved, and one of the things I remember most is the description of the children endlessly twisting hay into sticks to burn because there wasn’t any coal. While many aspects of the Little House books were exaggerated or fictionalized (in part to reinforce a myth of rugged white individualism) Wilder’s depiction of the winter of 1880–1881 was dead on, it turns out. Meteorologist Barbara Mayes-Boustead looked at old records from military forts and cities across the upper Midwest, and found that this really was an unusually bad year for snow, probably because of a combination of climate conditions that brought unusually cold and wet air masses together.

A few years later, on January 12, 1888, a sudden horrific storm known as the Schoolhouse Blizzard struck the Great Plains, so-named because it caught children and teachers unawares on what had been an unseasonably warm winter day. At least 235 people died in the storm — mostly children and schoolteachers lost in the drifts as they tried to make their way home across the prairie. Just two months later, another storm (the Great Blizzard of 1888) hit the east coast, when nearly five feet of snow fell in Baltimore, New York, and Boston, disabling transportation and communications for days, wrecking ships in their harbors, and freezing livestock where they stood. Hundreds of people died.

These severe storms left physical and metaphorical scars on their communities. Back in the Midwest, many immigrant families abandoned their farms and went back to the old country, grief-stricken and disillusioned with the harsh life on the prairie. In cities back east still shaken by the memory of downed electrical wiring and total shut-downs, the storms had long-lasting impacts on urban infrastructure — telegraph and electric cables were moved underground, and it’s thought that the storm was part of the motivation for the formation of the first underground subway system in Boston.

My own town has a throwback to an extreme historic weather event: 1816’s “Year Without a Summer,’ otherwise known as ‘the Poverty Year’ or ‘Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death.’ A volcanic winter caused by the massive 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora (combined with the tail-end of the Little Ice Age) created unusually cold conditions in the Northern Hemisphere. In New England, it snowed every month of the year and crops failed. Families fed-up with farming rocks abandoned their homesteads to head out to the frontier (which at that time was Ohio) where the milder climate and rich soils promised an easier way of life. Forests began to grow back, though some traces of these abandoned farms remain in northern New England. If you’ve ever stumbled upon an old rock wall, an isolated apple tree, or a crumbling cellar hole in the middle of the woods, you might have stood in one of the farms left behind during the Great Abandonment. And where I live, the road leading west out of town still bears the name it was given by those who left for greener pastures: “Ohio Street.”

The extreme weather events of the 19th century have a lot to teach us about the Earth’s climate decades before climatology emerged as a quantitative science. We know about these events thanks to the historical record: newspapers, diaries, ships’ logs, photographs, and other documents that record not only what happened, but how these events affected the people who lived through them: people who witnessed the unthinkable, and then wrote it down so that one day, others could part the veils of time and glimpse their pain, their fears, and their perseverance.

We owe a lot to these records and to the people who made them. They provide us with valuable information about Earth’s climate from a time when CO2 levels were still below 300 parts per million. And they provide a baseline for understanding how much has changed over the last century. Thanks to the work of these everyday people recording moments from their everyday lives, we have a deeper, richer understanding of our natural world and the impacts of our very unnatural actions.

Welcome to Warm Regards. I’m Jacquelyn Gill.

Ramesh Laungani
And I’m Ramesh Laungani. For this episode, we’re exploring the ways in which the efforts of people beyond the formal scientific community have helped us to understand our changing planet. We begin with a conversation about historical climatology — the field that takes all those military fort logs, newspaper articles, and farm diaries and transforms them into data that extends the instrumental record back centuries. Then, we have a conversation about how volunteer observations about nature are helping scientists document and understand the impacts of a warming world.

Jacquelyn
For our first conversation, we sat down with Dr. Cary Mock, a climatologist from the University of South Carolina. He works with historical documents to reconstruct extreme weather events like hurricanes, and their impacts on society from around the world.

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Jacquelyn
Cary, thank you for joining us. This season, we’ve been focusing on the often surprising or little-known stories behind climate data, and you work with some pretty unusual ones. How did you get started working with historical records? What was your journey like?

Cary Mock
It’s kind of a weird journey; you never know what you expect sometimes. I actually approached it from a paleoclimate angle. Most of my earlier educational stuff was more in the paleoclimate bent, but I kind of had the mind if you want to do your past climates before modern records; you got to be the most accurate that you can be. And then historical is about the most accurate data; doesn’t go as far back, of course.

Jacquelyn
Okay, how did you go from paleoclimate (which mostly involves timescales before we even had a written record) to working with historical documents? Was there a moment where you just suddenly knew, “Yes, this is what I want to do!”

Cary
It happened pretty quickly. That was when I was first a master’s student at Utah, where I wanted to do paleoclimate then at the Great Basin and then do Quaternary and all that type of stuff. I took a seminar and then we had to do some topics and stuff like that, and [unintelligible] higher resolution and Jean Kaye was actually the professor in a seminar who was a historical person, so that kind of sparked my interest. At least in that term, I did a paper on; it actually looked at overland diaries for the 1840s. Once I finished that class, I wrote a hundred page paper and I decided back then that I got so far into it, I can’t turn back now.

Ramesh
What sort of documents do you look at now, and how do you go about translating them into an understanding of a regional climate event?

Cary
Now I look at all sorts of things like ship logs and things like that. As far as the most important aspect goes, it’s data quality. You want, from my experience at least, you don’t necessarily want the longest records or the catchiest records; you want the best quality records. They’re only maybe even a few months long or a year long for that matter, for climate purposes; you want to get those because those are a lot better than fooling around with something that’s thirty years long but they always undercount the rain days or things like that. Different documents are good for different things. So you have a short, they can tell you a lot about extreme events. That’s kind of how I merged more and more over years looking at things like hurricanes. Those historical documents would be better for those extreme events. If you want to capture the gradual three hundred year climate changes, first that would take a real long time to do and you kind of have to get a little bit lucky at finding good documents and a bunch of them that cover all those years. Like in Europe, it’s a lot bigger over there doing that type of stuff.

Jacquelyn
Okay, so let’s say that you are trying to reconstruct an extreme event, like a historic hurricane. Could you walk us through the kinds of sources that you would use, and how you would then convert the information in that document into quantitative data about a hurricane’s track?

Cary
Okay, yeah, that’s one of the easier (relatively easier) things to do. First of all, if they had old instrumental records, I regard that as historical too. It’s like the Thomas Jeffersons and people like that that took weather data numerically back then. You would try to find some good old instrumental records where maybe you get lucky to have a barometer or something like that. I’ve been lucky once in a while in finding those. One person in South Carolina wrote a weather diary for fifty years and it was really good, so that helped me a lot. Then after that, you kind of go into other types of documents. We have ship logs. Usually those are going to be pretty good for hurricanes because they will record stuff in the night. They record all around the clock. And if it’s like a navy log, they will usually have pressure (barometric pressure), which is not always good but if you look at it for a long enough time period — if it is a level pressure when it should be, then it’s probably pretty good. If it’s way too low than what it should be, then you have to be a little bit suspect that maybe there’s a leak in the barometer. So there you can get a numerical estimate by listing how low the pressure gets. Sometimes the shift logs have relative wind data called the Beaufort scale where like seven would be like a tropical storm strength and twelve would be a hurricane. It was a numerical scale that went up to twelve; that helps in some of the more weaker storms. You can also look at diaries; you’re kind of going down the list. Diaries and newspapers will not necessarily give you a lot of numerical stuff directly, but they’ll give you damage stuff (which we even do today), like houses blown off and trees uprooted and things like that. You can get an idea about the intensity estimates. Of course you have to watch out for engineering practices back then and the types of trees that were uprooted, and things like that.

Ramesh
So I’m curious to know, you’ve highlighted a diversity of records that you look at, where do you find these kinds of records?

Cary
At the local level, you can always find some stuff locally from the local newspapers and local diaries, like the local historical societies (like the Maine Historical Society or the Nebraska State Historical Society, for example); they usually have more of the local stuff. But if you want something kind of more unique in ship logs, you have to go to the more national-scale archives. That’s like the U.S. National Archives at the Library of Congress. Or if you want to go farther back (like I go a lot until COVID), I go a lot to London and look into British log books because the British ruled the seas for hundreds of years and they had a huge Navy. And even in North America in the 1700s in the American revolution, they have a treasure trove of data. There’s a wide variety, but I would say say you try to work your way, it’s best to be that national/international after you get some experience because you can find so much. At the local level, you can kind of do that whenever you happen to drop by, but after a while usually your local level is going to dry up with what you’re looking for.

Jacquelyn
It sounds like these are really fun documents to work with, but I also imagine that the people who wrote some of these journals or newspaper articles or even the ship’s logs that you work with, they probably never imagined that their records would be used to study climate change by someone decades or centuries into the future. Does that pose a challenge for you, and how do you deal with that?

Cary
You gotta know what the context they’re writing in, whether they’re exaggerating or things like that. Usually something like the navy logs, they had to go by a protocol and set of rules because they’re military and there’s not much they can do. You can say this generally reliable as long as they’re serious about it. But some of these old fort records taken in the early 1800s like Fort Preble in Maine and all that, you had to watch out that a poor private took it and didn’t really care about the weather. So it might look like a real neat weather record on paper, but maybe in there he only records the rain when it’s above 0.2 inches and stuff like that; you find out by eventually keying in all the data and it looks weird. Another thing is with temperature data, what I look at a lot are the morning versus the afternoon, the so-called diurnal range. When it’s rather narrow, that’s a hint that maybe it was protected or maybe indoors. Some of the earlier records, there are a lot of indoor thermometers; they didn’t know what they’re doing back then.

Jacquelyn
So then how do you go about validating the data that you collect? As an example, what if there are two forts along the coast of Maine, and their records contradict one another. I imagine this must happen from time to time?

Cary
Yeah. In terms of that, to go back to the example of hurricanes, numbers is the best way to overcome that. Sometimes, say for example, I got lucky and I have thirteen ship logs that are of a hurricane, ten or eleven might say the same thing and two just might be wacko and just didn’t say too much. You try to first have numbers; that’s probably the best thing. That’s usually my biggest defense, is the numbers, and if it’s really bad (like the temperature records), there’s really not a whole lot you can do with it. But still, you know, they might write something like, “It was a very rainy day and wind was from the south”; it could be useful for just that extreme event. So there are certain things; even if the record’s not too good, in a broad sense it still might be pretty useful otherwise. Sometimes I get lucky, I find a lot of good records quickly. There have been days, and I learn more over time. The earlier trips to the UK when I looked at ship logs for hurricanes, there are some days I’ll look at twenty-one logs and maybe only one might be directly good and really frustrating over the last several years. Over the last several years I go there, my success rate is about 80 or 90% now so I’ve learned over time from reading, reading stuff and knowing what’s probably likely good and things like that.

Ramesh
What’s been the most surprising source of climate data that you’ve worked with in these historical records?

Cary
It’s kind of a tie. The set of British logs are probably surprising just because of how many there are and the fact that, for example, I’ve looked at Hong Kong typhoons. I intended one time just to be a summer project, and it turns out it’s taken me ten years to do it because I found out I had to go all the way to 1950 to actually find typhoons. I thought they found every typhoon (at least near 1950), but it hasn’t. Actually in a British Navy, it’s amazing; I just find more and more and more. I don’t know why the British Navy is so big. So that’s one of the archives. One that is more unique and different is the New Orleans notarial archives. That’s in New Orleans where I looked at hurricanes back in the early 1800s and late 1700s, where if a captain of a ship got in an accident or it got damaged, you file it to a notary — so it’s like old ship insurance. Without those, I wouldn’t have been able to look at old New Orleans hurricanes because the newspapers and the diaries in a ship logs just didn’t have enough data for that time, but the New Orleans notarial archives did have a lot of good stuff. Those were early weird; you had to look through a lot of one thousand page books, and of course the first writing was hard to read and you could go through a lot of one thousand page books. The protests are about nothing related at all to hurricanes, but if you find the right book all of a sudden it’d be like forty or fifty in a row. Some days you find nothing and then one day you find maybe fifty of them.

Ramesh
So you mentioned insurance logs. Are those logs more reliable than other documents because it’s dealing with money, so a particularly accurate description of the damage is needed?

Cary
That was part of it. You have to watch out for that, too, cuz the notaries will write up the report and sometimes the notary was a lazy guy and he will plagiarize his report in about ten or twenty of those things. So I’ll read maybe like one that looked similar; if it was twenty of them, I would just regard that as one of them. That happens in the newspapers a lot too, where people plagiarized quite a bit about hurricanes and weather events because they’re after a story and they get a newspaper account from another newspaper. They essentially copy it. Today, if they did that they’ll get caught, but back then they didn’t get caught.

Ramesh
How do these types of historical climate data and records relate to community and citizen science efforts that people around the world take part in today?

Cary
There’s a number of different groups, because a lot of you need a lot of historical data to actually do something meaningful for climate purposes. So some people have turned to citizen projects, to hope that citizens can do a lot of the work for them. I’m mixed on it; some are massively optimistic about that. I think it’s best for citizen projects if it’s a smaller sort of confined project and you know that the people will be interested and there could be an end product, I think. Like recently there’s this Thomas Jefferson papers project, and I think the citizens did a real good job on that because it’s Thomas Jefferson; they’re interested and it’s something smaller — they can see the end. There was this other one that’s been going along for years now called OldWeather.org where they just try to get almost everything, but they don’t really have an end in sight. So I think that could be a little bit more frustrating, so there’s pluses or minuses. There’s a citizen project out of McGill, too, where they focused on instrumental old records at McGill. I think that one is a good example that will be good because they can see an end project in sight, and it’s small enough where the handwriting and all that won’t be as massive as a problem.

Ramesh
Do you think that citizen science projects looking at historical climate data gets people interested in climate change?

Cary
A little bit — they’re more aware of it and things like that. Their interest is really more into the Civil War, which is another thing with the citizen projects. Are they really interested in the weather stuff? But some of them eventually get around and get into the weather stuff. I think it’s important to get something that’s easy for the citizens to read. You have to kind of come up with some unique things. Like one of them I would like to see if it’s ever done or the World War II log books (the navy logs) because those are actually typed so that anyone can read those. And they went over the place of the Southwest Pacific, like the typhoons over in Okinawa and all that. So I think stuff like that, they can learn a lot more of a World War II history, and those things are typed.

Ramesh
So today we collect all sorts of data digitally from networks of weather stations. Do you worry that older forms of data like historical records are being lost because we have so much real-time instrumentation?

Cary
Well, the older data, you know, if you want to look back in the Little Ice Age you can’t do that with the newer data. That’s the main thing about that, about the difference between the two. But I would say that I would like to bridge the two, ideally. What do you need to do as I mentioned some of the older instrumental data, is that there’s difference of thermometer exposures of how they’re exposed in different sides of the house in different building material; some of the recent data and all that where you have micro climatologists and all that, they look at that type of stuff in a boundary layer and what heating does to the instruments and how they’re exposed. You know, I like to actually apply some of those modern ideas to the past. You can set up some instruments; they actually have done that at Jefferson’s Monticello just like it was in the 1700s, but using modern data and old instrumental practices; I think that’s vital to do both approaches together actually.

[music]

Jacquelyn
This is so fascinating to me, and I keep thinking about the people behind these records; they had their own lives and personalities, and I imagine this must come through sometimes in the way they kept these records or even the little notes they made. One example that comes to mind is in their handwriting. I’ve seen pictures of some of the documents that you’ve worked with, and the handwriting looks like it would be a challenge. Are you just naturally talented at deciphering script? Or did this take practice for you?

Cary
Yeah, I’ve gotten used to it. Some people are a lot more structured. Like we used to have a historical geography colleague in our department and she would teach kind of traditional calligraphy. You go to these books and sites and you learn how things are written. I never did anything like that. To my opinion, I just looked at a bunch and I see every possibility and I can recognize it, but I know that when a graduate student or citizens projects, they have a hard time learning some of that stuff. It’s probably not good for them to start out with something that’s extra tough. For example, some of the whaling logs at New Bedford and all these other places in New England, you have to get used to the maritime terminology. I got used to it pretty quick after a while, but I can see some people there take a real long time to get used to it. So me, I just got used to it. Newspapers are usually pretty easy now because they’re typed anyway, but if they’re a microfilm can be kind of tough. I do recall my first year at Utah when I first started looking at newspapers, they told me to look at the old Salt Lake newspapers on microfilm and I looked at microfilm. I hated it back then, of course, but the microfilm machines were probably not as good as today; it hurt my eyes and everything. So I called the historical society and asked if I can look at the originals and he said, “Nobody ever looks at the original; you’ve just got to learn how to do the microfilm.” I learned how to do it after that.

Jacquelyn
Your work is really interdisciplinary and I think this really speaks to the need for diverse skill sets and different disciplines to tackle the problem of climate change. I know that you’re in a Geography department and I came out of a Geography department for graduate school, and geography for those that don’t know is a really big discipline that intersects with so many different fields of research. I’m wondering, do you think that being a geographer has influenced your approach to climate science?

Cary
Definitely on the interdisciplinary front where I think for the historical stuff, the best people that can actually transfer and get into that are actually the paleo and quaternary people, because those people kind of know how different interdisciplinary approaches come together. While if you get a historian, for example, they’ll be overwhelmed more by the meteorology and they actually don’t like the sheer volume of data. They like to usually get a few representative documents and write a narrative or a story, which is not what the climate scientists do. While in meteorology, they don’t like the full out of history stuff or the handwriting as much, although I think they’re starting to come around a little bit.

Jacquelyn
That’s interesting. It sounds like there’s a difference in scale. My historian friends might sometimes work on a single document or the papers from one individual, but it sounds like really large volumes of data are really essential for your work.

Cary
Yeah, you need what the historian says is “critical mass amounts”, which is what they’re not usually used to. Well, I shouldn’t say that. Some historians. The more younger and ambitious progressive historians are more into that, and they’re very well skilled at that. Some of the older traditional historians might be kind of against that type of stuff. I had to fight against some of those in my earlier career, although I’m okay right now with them though.

Ramesh
In those records, do you ever run into personal comments like “Wow, this storm was devastating” or “Uncle Walter was caught out in the hayfield and he lost three fingers from frostbite”? Do you get a sense of what it was like living through these events?

Cary
Oh yeah, that’s mostly in the diaries and the newspapers. In the science context, you got to watch out for that (like with the hurricanes and the snow storms) because every current storm is the worst thing they ever encountered. You can usually find, if you look carefully, how reliable the numbers are, like two feet of snow or something like that, but you got to watch out. Like the term “frost”, for example. Frost was a very loose term back in the 1800s, especially in the South where, you know, it may not actually be 32 degrees. The vegetation might be frost-looking like damage, but there wasn’t actually a frost. There’s all sorts of different stuff with the meaning about what societal things are. Some of them are reliable and some of them are not, but again the sheer numbers is what’s really going to tell you the story.

Jacquelyn
It sounds like you can maintain a sort of professional distance, which is probably even more important when you’re working with what could be pretty subjective sources. Do you ever find it hard to take a step back? I feel like I would get sucked in into the story, or like I was even getting to know some of these people, like they were my friends, in a way.

Cary
I used to more and that used to be a little bit more of a problem. One thing that has happened though, is sometimes I find out that let’s say you kept the record for a good weather diary for thirty years. And after awhile, like he’s been there for ten years and he knows the place, and when he says something bad, I trust what he says. So you know, I might trust someone more for what they wrote down if I know that they’re particularly good and objective for example, to my opinion. But sometimes they get sucked into a certain event because it’s such a remarkable event. And that’s where if you have some colleagues and all that, maybe they sometimes can bring you down a little bit. It doesn’t happen to me as much as it used to. We all have our favorite events. 1849 is kind of my famous year because the gold rush, and that’s how I got started

Jacquelyn
Wow, okay. So other than the gold rush, what is about 1849? Was that a superlative year in terms of the weather?

Cary
I started out by that way back in my master’s thesis. Then I found out that that had so many extreme events, which was unbelievable. You know, we talk about (what was it, a few years ago?) those billion dollar disasters, a lot of them are hurricanes. 1849, (not necessarily in hurricanes) was one of those years of extreme events. It had probably the biggest killing event in the American South. It had one of the most widespread droughts in New England that we can ever imagine. And then in the West coast there, they had massive atmospheric rivers; like three or four of those in San Francisco had fifteen inches of snow.

Ramesh
Wow.

Cary
So that’s just sort of a representative sample.

Ramesh
Have you ever worked with any weather or climate records from Asia or Africa? And if so, are those recorded differently than what you find in things like the British ship logs?

Cary
Well, I looked at the British stuff over in Hong Kong and Japan and then in conjunction with it, I’ve looked at some newspapers, some of them in Chinese. That didn’t really help very much; I don’t know that language too well anyway. I’ve usually looked at the English speaking stuff over in Asia, but you mentioned India. I know a British colleague actually does look at British stuff in India, as well as the Indian-language stuff there to look at monsoons to all the way back to the 1700s. So stuff like that, that the British East India company (I believe went all the way back then) have detailed records. The problem about some of the more local language stuff like stuff in China, the English-speaking, instrumental meteorology didn’t get introduced a lot into the country until the late 1800s, so we actually had to rely more on the English-speaking stuff in parts of Asia. But one of the hidden things over there (you run into weird stuff as you go along) is that the Russians were sailing all over the place. The Russian sailed a huge deal. They went to California; they went to Hawaii; they went all over to Japan and everything, all the way back into the 1700s. If you ever get an expertise in a Russian ship logs, that guy would have a real gold mine to work with.

Ramesh
When I took my wife, a climatologist, to India for the first time to visit our family and she saw an Indian monsoon, her eyes were wide and her mouth was on the floor. She had never seen anything like it. But for my family, this is just another Tuesday. How do you think that the Western or European perspective impacts how that data or those events are recorded? Do you think the Western perspective where you might not see extreme events like a monsoon season impacts the words that are used when the data is collected in the historical records by, let’s say, the East India company?

Cary
The East India company, if you want to really study the monsoon you have to look at wind data because the monsoon wind structure is pretty specific, but that’s where those logs particularly come in. I don’t think you can use those to really reconstruct the rainfall amount quantitatively real good, but they’re pretty good for the timing of the monsoon or whether there really was a monsoon or not. They can tell on that, although some of a sudden the local old stuff can be pretty good sometimes; I’ve looked a little bit at some of those. Some of the old almanacs in China, they can at least probably say there was a typhoon or something. They go back over a thousand years and once in a while there’s a real big monsoon event that drowned the village. You might find some unique, extreme events like that.

Jacquelyn
Cary, I’d like to hear a little bit more about how your historical perspective (or even the fact that you work with these very human documents) influences your own understanding of anthropogenic climate change today?

Cary
In an overall sense, I got more and more into extreme events as I’ve gone on, and I seen some events back in the Little Ice Age and all that I wish I had considered like unprecedented, or like a bigger hurricane that can maybe hit Norfolk, Virginia or someplace like that (that we don’t know of today) dead on. So I found more and more of those unprecedented events, which I think a lot of these vary with natural climate variability, you know, the stuff that paleoclimate people work on all the time. So in global warming with the extreme events and the forcing the greenhouse gases, et cetera, superimposed on what extreme events can have to natural variability, I’m actually very concerned for the future when both of them are kind of combined together. Just to give one example, you’re going to, you know, we get used to get, occasionally it is real big killing frost events in the spring because it was generally colder. It may not be as cold most of the time because of global warming, but in global warming, we might have, for example, earlier springs and more leaves going out earlier and plants blossoming, et cetera. And then you just get that one real freak cold wave (sort of like a big event happening) and then society’s in trouble. So I’m kind of worried about the natural and anthropogenic stuff kind of combining together, which I think that’s why it’s vital to look at the older records in conjunction with the newer records.

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Justin Schell
Hey everyone, producer Justin Schell here. This week’s data story comes to us from Holly Prendeville, a listener continuing the tradition of observing and recording local weather events. But unlike those observers that Cary Mock discussed, she doesn’t have to wait decades or centuries to have the data be useful. Here’s Holly to tell you more.

Holly Prendeville
Most mornings, I start my day by taking my dog Zundert for a walk. Our first stop is at the rain gauge where I record how much rain we’ve received from the previous recording and note it in my phone app. My name is Holly Prendeville. I live in Western Oregon, about 45 miles Southwest of Portland, on the edge of the Coastal Mountain range. Where I live, our summers are dry and the majority of our rain comes in the winter and fall months. I live in the country and so I depend on spring water for my drinking and household water. The last few weeks, we are getting a lot of much-needed rain, as Oregon has been experiencing drought or unusually dry conditions recently. As of the 1st of January, I have recorded over four inches of rain in my rain gauge, and I’m recording this today on the 7th of January. In 2018 (also a drought year for Oregon), I decided to join CoCoRHAS the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network. This way I would know how much rain had fallen or how long it had been since the last time it had rained. In the spring and summer, this information is helpful for me to know when to water my garden or how much to water my garden if it hasn’t been raining very often or been a long time. And in the winter, it helps me guide if I should pump water from my storage tank, as we collect rain water from our roof. I store that and then use it to water my garden and fruit trees in the summer. CoCoRHAS is a nonprofit community-based group of volunteers who report daily precipitation. I report how much rain I receive, and then my reports are shown online via map, and then I can see how much rain others have gotten. I’m really amazed to see how much variation there can be in a really short distance, how some storms can totally pass me but hit my neighbors. I also appreciate that my reports are useful to others. CoCoRHAS reports are viewed by state climatologists to understand drought conditions, particularly in areas with no nearby official weather stations. For me, it’s an easy way to collect climate information and share it with others.

Schell
We’d love to hear your data story. You can leave us a voicemail by calling 586–930–5286, or record yourself and email it to us at OurWarmRegards@gmail.com.

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Ramesh
My spouse is a climatologist, so suffice it to say that between her and I there is a fair bit of talk about weather, climate, and climate change in our house. She’ll tell me about recent record high temperatures or an unprecedented weather event, like the recent heavy snowfall in Spain or an interesting climate record that has recently been broken. While she spends her days working with mountains of climate data collected from weather stations across the country to see how the climate is changing, I look at how the biological world responds to elevated temperatures and higher levels of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. I teach a whole course called Climate Change Biology where I share the myriad of ways that species, ecological communities, and whole ecosystems are responding to climate change. We read research papers showing that elevated carbon dioxide could impact the relationship between monarch butterflies and the plants they feed on by changing the chemical composition of the sap that the butterflies eat. We talk about how future generations of sea turtles in the Great Barrier Reef of Australia are at risk because increasing global temperatures are making the sea turtle population nearly all female. I show them graphs of how elderberries are changing when they are producing fruit, resulting in a change in the diet of Kodiak bears from a mix of salmon and elderberries to one that is more heavily-dominated by elderberries. These examples are just a few of the ways the biological world is reacting to climate change. These are undeniable climate change signals and it’s why I teach the class: they show us the fingerprints of a warming world that are already happening.

As an ecologist, these biological signals are particularly impactful to me because they are tangible in a different way than a global temperature anomaly measurement, but they are also impactful because these signals are multifaceted and diverse. And just like measurements of global temperature and CO2 from independent sources, like satellites and weather stations, help making the case for anthropogenic climate change more powerful, these wide-ranging biological data show me and my students that there isn’t a part of our biosphere that will be unaffected by climate change.

I share these biological signals of climate change with my students, not only to help them understand how biologists study climate change, but also because I want them to realize that they can see these climate change signals in their own backyards. Maybe the lilies at their house are blooming a bit earlier than before, or maybe an insect that they normally hear in the middle of the summer is audible a bit earlier.

In fact, documenting these patterns of change, from their own backyard to around the world, are the basis for a number of community and citizen science projects that can be found on platforms like Zooniverse, SciStarter, iSeeChange, and CoCoRAHS (as you heard earlier in Holly’s data story). With a little bit of training, people without a formal scientific background can participate in the scientific process by documenting the wide-reaching impacts of climate change with tools like their smartphone.

For our second guest in today’s episode, we speak with Dr. Theresa Crimmins, the Director of the National Phenology Network based at the University of Arizona. We talked with her about why these biological signals of climate change can be so powerful and how volunteers can contribute to understanding how the biological world is responding to a warming planet.

Jacquelyn
Theresa, thank you so much for talking with us. This conversation is part of a broader episode on some of the unexpected sources of data about climate change and its impacts on our planet, which is where your work with the National Phenology Network comes in. So for those of our listeners who aren’t familiar with this term, can you just tell us: what is phenology?

Theresa Crimmins
I would be happy to, thank you. Phenology is an old-fashioned really wonky word for a phenomenon that I guarantee every person who’s listening is intimately familiar with. It pertains to when stuff happens in nature — basically when do different trees in your backyard put on their leaves in the spring or have them change color in the fall, or when migratory birds first show up in the spring or depart in the fall. It just refers to when those things happen and why the timing might vary from year to year.

Ramesh
So you mentioned a broad range of organisms that exhibit some sort of phenology. Is there phenology of a particular type of organism that most people are familiar with in their everyday lives?

Theresa
You know, I think it tends to be those charismatic fauna and flora that generally pop to mind — leaf color change in deciduous trees is a big one for sure; that’s a very obvious event that marks the start of fall. But stuff happening at the beginning of spring is really characteristic as well. Again, for folks that are in a temperate system where you are experiencing a winter where biological activity for the most part kind of takes a break over the winter, people tend to get really excited about seeing that first leaf bud begin to burst and the little really bright green leaflets in the spring, or the arrival of migratory birds again in the spring. Those kinds of things are really indicative for folks. Lilacs are another one that I think are really common that folks tend to latch onto, or cherry blossoms in the spring. All of those things that really just characterize a season

Jacquelyn
And it can be non-living things too, right, like when the ice breaks up on a lake, or the first frost of the year? Are those considered phenology, too?

Theresa
Yeah, actually they are. The abiotic phenomenon like ice breakup are not included in the things that we track through the USA National Phenology Network, but indeed they are strong indicators of seasonal changes that occur from year to year.

Jacquelyn
What are the kinds of questions that you can ask by studying phenology? What types of phenomena are people trying to track through time?

Theresa
You know, the biggest question that really had an awful lot to do with the establishment of a phenology network in the United States is how is the timing of seasonal events changing, basically as a consequence of changing climate conditions? In other parts of the world (especially in Europe, but Asia as well) there have been really, really well-established programs for tracking the timing of events like the first cherry blossoms in the spring for millennia in some cases. But even having data like that for decades is a really valuable resource for being able to understand whether things are changing and, if so, how. It was in the 2008 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report where it was acknowledged by the authors that phenology (meaning when stuff happens) is really an excellent indicator of understanding how plants and animals and ecosystems are responding to rapidly changing anthropogenically-driven climate climate conditions, and therefore we should be tracking it. We should be tracking it everywhere, (carefully and following structured protocols) so that we can better understand how things are changing (whether different species are changing their phenology in the same ways and in the same amounts) and then being able to understand the consequences of that, because what we see, what many studies from around the globe have shown are that certain species have advanced. In many cases it’s advancing phonology and especially in the spring season, things are happening earlier than they used to because it’s warmer earlier in the year than it used to be. However, not everybody is advancing their phenology, and even among species that are advancing their phenology, some are advancing by many weeks and others maybe only by a few days per degree warming. And so an obvious consequence of that is that species that had evolved to undergo these different seasonal events at the same time and perhaps benefit each other, if they’re no longer doing that, that has a lot of consequences for structure and function — things like ecosystem services like pollination and then fruit development and food resources for other dependent species. And we really are just beginning to scratch the surface on understanding the consequences of changes in phenology and what those long-term impacts might be.

Ramesh
So Theresa, I teach a class where we talk about the biological impacts of climate change and so phenology comes up a fair amount. When my students are initially learning about this they ask, “Doesn’t everything just shift together? If the flowers bloom earlier, don’t the bees just show up earlier too?” So how do we think about how climate change may impact the phenology of different species in different ways?

Theresa
Indeed, we’re where things are being tracked together, where repeated observations are being collected on a number of species at the same locations through time. That’s really our best way to be able to understand whether the changes are consistent across the different species or not. And yes, when they’re not, in many cases they are not; there’s not consistent changes or rates of advancement. So in the example that you just gave where “if flowers are flowering earlier, but bees are not”, that can be a double negative there because the flowers no longer have the bees available to pollinate them, and so then they become dependent on, perhaps some other pollinator to take up that mantle. And the bees are not going to have that food resource available if they’re arriving or emerging leader than when those flowers are open. Then they need to figure out a different food source to make up for that, or they’re going to be suffering as well.

Jacquelyn
For our listeners who aren’t familiar with this research, how about how a phenological study gets designed? How do you choose a species, or a reference period? Meaning, if you’re trying to show that tulips are blooming earlier in the spring, what would be your basis of comparison? How do you go about putting all this information together?

Theresa
Before the establishment of the National Phenology Network, there were a lot of people that were tracking phenology. In many cases this was a scientific endeavor and in a lot of cases, it was out of curiosity and an interest in nature as well. Both kinds of records are actually incredibly valuable for having information about when things happened in previous years or decades to be able to compare to now. Sometimes people find those historical records and then that inspires the collection of data on those same species in the same location to be able to compare to. There are a lot of examples of this. One of the most famous is in the northeast where researchers out of Boston University are resampling observations that Henry David Thoreau logged back in the mid 19th century. But there are also many of these kinds of examples that are not as well-known from across the country as well. Another example is an individual up in the Grand Teton Mountains who is actively collecting data and repeating the observations collected by somebody I think mid last century, and is documenting that many of the flowering species that that individual saw back in the 1950s, they’re now flowering several weeks earlier. That’s a really important study because it’s up in a mountainous environment where some of the warming is occurring more rapidly than in some other parts of the world.

Jacquelyn
It sounds like a lot of this work is kind of built on this longer history of public interest in science that goes back centuries. I’m guessing that means that a lot of these datasets really started serendipitously. You know, Thoreau happened to make some observations at Walden Pond, and later people realized the value of that information. I’m guessing very few people set out thinking, “Well, I’m going to collect these data now. And then in a hundred years, someone else can follow up?”

Theresa
Indeed. That’s exactly right. I am certain that Thoreau did not anticipate that he was logging data that we’re going to turn out to be incredibly valuable, 150 years later for documenting advancement in springtime phenology. However, we are now collecting data through a program called Nature’s Notebook run by the National Phenology Network that is intended to help folks understand change, and as we go forward, the intent is every record that’s being submitted right now is becoming part of a rapidly growing data resource that will help us understand what’s going on now and how that compares to what we see in the future.

Ramesh
So Theresa, you’ve mentioned the National Phenology Network, but what exactly is the National Phenology Network and what is its goal?

Theresa
The National Phenology Network is an organization that exists here in the United States for basically collecting, storing and sharing information and data about when stuff happens in plants and animals from year to year. One of the big things that we do is run the program Nature’s Notebook, which is a citizen science or a community science program. Basically, it’s a program through which people of any age or skill level can help track when stuff is happening in their yard. There are structured protocols that you follow and it takes a little bit to get set up and going, but once you have things established it’s really very quick and easy to go out and make observations. I track several trees in my backyard and I take my phone out with me cause I have a little app on there. Basically every time I’m looking at that at an individual tree I’m answering questions like, “Do I see breaking leaf bonds right now? Yes or no.” “Do I see open flowers? Yes or no.” And if I do see open flowers, “How many flowers are open on that tree?” And that data resource is readily available for anybody to come to our website and explore through a visualization tool or download and analyze. It’s becoming a really important resource for researchers and scientists to be able to evaluate and understand how things are changing. It’s also used in a lot of other ways. There’s been dozens and dozens of peer-reviewed science publications that have used these data. But the data and the program and the resources are also used quite a bit by decision-makers on the ground for better being able to anticipate, you know, is this spring an especially early one? And if it is, what are, what’s that going to mean for the kinds of things that I have to worry about? You know, does that mean it’s going to be a tougher allergy season or might we be facing problems with invasive species flowering or greening out earlier, and so we need to deploy our crews earlier than usual? We’ve really kind of tried to do three things with these data and information about phenology that we make available. It is to support scientific discovery and understanding, to support management decisions, and then to communicate with the general public and the news media to help increase awareness about what phenology is (since it is such a challenging word) and what it means for our day-to-day lives actually.

Jacquelyn
Can you tell us a little bit more about the specifics of the Nature’s Notebook project and how it helps everyday folks participate in this kind of data gathering?

Theresa
Sure, yeah. So it’s a program that you can access by going to NaturesNotebook.org. How you participate is that you simply sign up with a user profile and then you look at the list of plants and animals that are available for monitoring, because since we’re really interested in generating data that are of sufficient rigor to support science and management, we have fairly rigorous protocols; meaning again, that you’re answering yes/no questions about what you’re seeing. That’s important because it allows us to really narrow in on when something actually started and when it actually ended. So you identify one or more plants or animals that you want to track at your location and you get all that set up in an online interface on the website. And then, every time you want to make observations (and we try to encourage observations on approximately a weekly basis) you’re making an observation, you’re going around to those individual plants that you opted to track and recording what you see. Right now I think close to 30,000 folks have contributed data to the program and something around 23 million records have been contributed since the program launched in 2009. Oh no, forty-five thousand! Forty-five thousand people have signed up; almost twenty thousand have submitted data.

Jacquelyn
Wow.

Ramesh
Even better!

Theresa
it’s really phenomenal. It’s really so exciting to see who all participates (it’s all across the country; it’s all fifty states) and they represent school children; natural resource managers from, say, the National Park Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management; folks at nature centers and arboreta; and it’s individuals of all stripes and backgrounds and ages. We are grateful for every single person and every single record that they contribute because it’s such an important record of what’s happening now that will be a resource that in the future can be compared to.

Ramesh
Given the standard protocols that you use in the National Phenology Network, how accessible are these kinds of projects and do the people who take part in this need scientific training or expertise?

Theresa
That’s a great question. So it’s true that since we are asking for a lot in terms of making rigorous observations, it does help to have some working knowledge of what it is that you’re looking at. Species identification is kind of a big one because since our staff is based in Tucson, Arizona, and we’re inviting people to participate from all across the country, it’s really not possible for us to come out to your site and answer questions on what it is that you’re looking at. However, we do make a lot of resources available that hopefully help mitigate those obstacles. One is for species identification. We encourage folks to contact local extension offices or nature centers because those facilities tend to have really strong expertise for that kind of information. And then in terms of understanding what you’re looking at (and again, this mostly pertains to plants because plants will sit still for you and you can actually look at them carefully and evaluate carefully), what structures are you seeing? And do you really see open flowers? Because for some species it’s very obvious and others it’s not as obvious. We have a lot of different educational resources and primers and guides that kind of walk you through basic botany and what it is we’re really looking for some of those specific questions. I guess the answer to your question is yes and yes. Yes, just about anybody can do it if they’re willing to, put in the effort to try to understand things with some, or if you have some basic knowledge of botany in particular or plants and animals in general that’s a good start.

Jacquelyn
How does someone get involved in one of these projects? Could I sign up myself, or would I have to be part of, say, a classroom or a community project?

Theresa
So one of the biggest things that we offer (I think it’s unique to Nature’s Notebook actually) is this capacity for folks to either participate as individuals (and so that’s simply if you are interested, you roll up to the website and you create a profile and you get started and you do it in your yard) or we have a capacity for folks to contribute as part of a group that we refer to as local phenology programs. These are often established by somebody at an institution like a nature center or a national park or state park or a local park or a classroom where there’s somebody there who says, “You know, I would love to get to formalize phenology monitoring at our site and I’m going to invite and other people to join me in it.” And so sometimes that’s volunteers or docents that are affiliated with that facility, sometimes it’s the students in the classroom, sometimes it’s members of a master gardener or a master naturalist chapter; but how it works from the data side is that we create the group in our database, and then when those individual plants are registered, anybody who’s part of that group can contribute observations on that same plant. So it ends up yielding typically a longer record of phenology because if you’re spreading kind of that responsibility or burden of monitoring frequently across multiple people, they tend to do it for longer, they tend to report more frequently (so you get more precise estimates of when things started or stopped), and they tend to have a good time, too. What we’ve learned is that when folks do it together as a group, they tend to benefit from the sense of camaraderie of being part of a group, they can kind of self calibrate and correct errors in interpretation that sometimes arise because, again, sometimes we’re asking about really nuanced little details on plants or animals that may be tricky to evaluate for sure. And so we’ve seen a much larger growth in participation as parts of groups over time than we have in the individual participation. And I can say too, that the data that are coming in through those groups is the data that is really generally richer and tells a story more appropriate for analysis at the end of the day. So we’ve been really cultivating that model as much as we can since it really does seem to yield the kind of record that’s really important for documenting what it is we’re trying to document.

Ramesh
What is it like working with these diverse communities of people that are outside of the scientific community and what benefits have you seen in working with a diverse coalition of participants? And have these participants mentioned any unexpected benefits of taking part in these types of efforts, either as an individual or as part of a group?

Theresa
You know, the number one thing I think we hear is that folks see things that they never noticed before. I hear that time and time again that somebody will say, “This tree has been in my yard for, you know, fifteen years and I walk by it every day. But because I’m now tracking the phenology of it, oh my gosh, I saw flowers and on a maple tree.” That might be a big deal because maple flowers are generally pretty small and diminutive. So it’s exciting to hear that and I can totally concur. I have a desert willow in my backyard and I have seen lynx spiders and big fat caterpillars that I have no idea what moth they belong to, simply because I walk up to that tree, try to do it on a weekly basis, and take a few moments and look at it carefully. But I do think, too, that participating in a program like this (if you’re opting to do it as a volunteer) you probably have some sort of natural curiosity and affinity for nature and the natural world anyway. So I think it’s often it’s kind of a step on the path, anyways, that that person was going to be on for learning more about either the individual plants and animals that they’re interacting with or about nature or climate change or activism or how they can better understand how things are changing and what they can do. I think that it can just help be part of that puzzle for a lot of folks too. We do have a number of people come to us via programs like master gardeners or master naturalists. That’s cool because they’re learning about their local ecology anyways, and then this just kind of slots right in there and gives them an opportunity to learn it even more on an even more personal level in their own backyard. Literally.

Ramesh
Right, right.

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Jacquelyn
Thousands of people are collecting a tremendous amount of data all over the world. How does that then get into the hands of researchers, and how are they using that information as part of these larger biodiversity or climate studies?

Theresa
So the data are right on our website and you can access them in a number of ways. If you are a researcher or scientist, we have an R package that enables you to query and pull directly into R. We also have an online GUI interface where you can query based on year and location and species and phenophase (meaning if you’re interested in just the leaf out or just the flowering information or migration or whatever). And for the lesser analytical types, we have a visualization tool that’s really aimed more for, say, a manager type or even a participant to just be able to go in and explore patterns spatially or from year-to-year or across species without having to touch the data, without having to download a spreadsheet or something. Researchers are discovering the data and, like I said, have published dozens of papers and one of the ways that the data are really frequently used actually are in serving as ground observations for interpreting what satellites are seeing (so in remote sensing imagery) but also for documenting, how the phonology of different events and in different species is changing. Our data record only goes back to 2009 so it’s not super long yet for really good rigorous trend analysis, but researchers are creative and different individuals or research teams have done things like pull out data from our database and link it up with data from herbaria, which go many more decades back in time and document things like, indeed, cherries are flowering quite a bit earlier than they used to be. They’ve also been able to document changes in abundances or just differing rates of change in phenology, as well as even fundamental relationships that exist in ecology. One really cool example of this is we had a researcher from Penn State University several years ago approached us and say, “Hey, I’m really interested in the phenology of invasive shrubs because we know that invasive species tend to leaf out earlier than native plants in the spring.” And that really gives them a leg up because especially in an understory canopy or in the understory canopy of a forest, the understory plants leaf out early in the spring to take advantage of the sunlight and kind of get going in the spring before the canopy is closed by the larger trees above them. If invasive species are leafing out ahead of the native species, they can out-compete those natives for the resources, the nutrients in the soil, as well as for the sun and shade out their native counterparts. She was curious to understand that relationship more, but being at Penn State, she said, “I can only collect data in so large of an area. Could I work with you to get people to document when they’re seeing leaf-out in different native and invasive species of shrubs in a larger area?” And we said, “Heck yeah!” So we established what we call a campaign in Nature’s Notebook and encouraged our participants to keep track of the phenology of I think it was like ten native shrubs and ten non-native shrubs. We did that for three years and she got data from over eight hundred sites pretty much across the country, and was able to do this really rigorous analysis that showed very clearly, indeed, invasives leaf out in advance of natives. But that relationship is really a function of latitude, and that the higher latitude you go, the less time difference there is between when the two groups of species leaf out. In the south, you know, it’s weeks, I think. But then once you get up into Maine, it’s almost at the same time.

Jacquelyn
Oh, that’s really fascinating. I’m wondering if you have any other favorite examples, maybe something you see as a sort of canary in the coal mine for climate change. I was actually reading recently that there was this really funky trend where plants were blooming really late in the year when they were supposed to be shutting down for winter. What was that all about?

Theresa
So, the late flowering stuff that we documented just this past year, I think I was seeing people report stuff on Twitter — just oddball stuff. Like somebody in Georgia in December saying, “I see a forsythia in flower,” and it made me wonder, “Do we have reports of this nature too?” And so I just tunneled into our database and said, “Give me all the species that are being reported in flower in October and November of 2020 that have never been reported in flower in October / in November in any other year, but have been reported in flower in other months.” I was shocked; it was dozens of species. I thought it would be one or two and it was a whole bunch of different stuff. It was all over the country too, which didn’t even . . . it was like too much to make sense of. It was so much craziness and the more we talked about it, the more things kept coming out of the woodwork. People sending me pictures of azaleas in flower in Massachusetts in December. And it turns out folks don’t really have a good understanding of why that was happening. I was grateful that some horticulturalists and agriculture extension people got into the conversation because they know more about the mechanisms than I do. It was proposed that it could either have been drought stress (we see that here in the desert as well) where if it’s really, really dry plants kind of panic and they flower at a really what seems like an opportune time, but I’m guessing it’s because they’re panicking and they were like, “I don’t know if I’m ever going to see water ever again. I better quick try to reproduce.” Or the other hypothesis that was put forth was that since it was so warm, some of the plants just thought it was spring, like we skipped over winter and they were like, “Ah, I guess it’s spring now.” The different species of plants have different combinations of triggers that they require that they be exposed prior to flowering though in the spring or leafing out. Some it’s just an accumulation of warmth and then they’ll start going. Others require either vernalization (meaning exposure to a certain amount of chill) before they start paying attention to warmth, and some even care about day length or sun angle. And so I would guess that the plants that we were seeing flowering oddly would have been ones that are only temperature-cued or temperature-triggered and don’t require the chill, but I haven’t gone in and looked deeply at that yet.

Ramesh
I’m curious to know: for you personally, is there a classic example of a phenological shift? Is there a particular species that you deeply connect with where you’ve seen a shift in phenology?

Theresa
Well, the NPN for sure is really well known for the Spring Index Maps which are built off of lilacs and honeysuckles. So those are probably the ones that I’m the most attuned to, even though we can’t really grow lilacs here in Tucson. The spring indices are these wonderful, wonderfully, fairly simple models, honestly, that were designed a few decades ago by Dr. Mark Schwartz at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee they were constructed using historical observations of when, some cloned lilacs and honeysuckles were logged or reported two put on their leaves and flowers. The reason why it’s important that those observations were from cloned plants is that he and others that preceded him got volunteers to plant lilacs and honeysuckles that were all from the cuttings of the same plant (meaning that they’re were genetically identical), but then they planted them all over the country and then reported back for many decades when those plants put on leaves and flowers in the spring. Because they were genetically identical, any variability in the timing of the events of flowering and leaf-out could be attributed to the local conditions and not that the plant was adapted to its local environment genetically. That enables you to really narrow down and control for what were the conditions, the weather conditions that those individual plants were exposed to previous to when they put out on their leaves and flowers. And it enables you to construct a predictive model that in this case is basically a function of accumulated temperature in the spring and then these synaptic events, which are like large-scale warm events that can happen in the spring where, you know, you may have many weeks of cold, cold, cold, and then just a couple of days of really nice warm temperature. Those seem to matter, at least for lilacs and honeysuckles. And so this predictive model that was generated is really intended to represent the initiation of biological activity in the spring season. The USA NPN has since operationalized those models in the form of national scale short-term forecasts that seemed to really resonate with the media. They end up in the news every spring, because since it’s so simple to calculate we can not only calculate and forecast when we think that that spring biological activity should occur in the current year, we can calculate it for years past and then difference the current year from the historical past, and give an indication of how early or late spring is arriving this year compared to compared to what it used to do. Those anomaly maps (which are showing, you know, “Spring is arriving three weeks early this year in Georgia”) really get people’s attention and really help tell. I think that’s probably the number one thing that we do that gets people’s attention and gets them thinking about climate change and that things are changing because seeing that map and seeing that, yes, spring is arriving three or sometimes four weeks earlier than it used to even just a couple of years ago, really grabs people’s attention and can start a conversation.

Jacquelyn
What about phenological changes that have an impact on our daily lives or even our health? I imagine some people might think, “Okay, so my lilac is blooming earlier. It’s a symptom of climate change, but it doesn’t affect me personally.” Whereas, some of these shifts do have direct impacts on our everyday lives. Could you tell us about some of those examples?

Theresa
Yeah, I know. I always kind of come at it, too, from that angle of “You might be excited to not have to scrape your windows into May,” you know, your windshield. You might welcome that it’s warm enough that in March you can stop putting de-icer on the sidewalk or something. But yeah, there are implications that can be negative — a lot of them. Some of the ones that we seem to hear about the most are the earlier start to the allergy season and the increased intensity of the allergy season. There have been some recent studies that have shown that in springs that start earlier, the incidents of emergency room visits for uncontrolled asthma is significantly greater. Another one is his pest — insect pests in particular. If there isn’t a long, cold winter, those populations might not get knocked back and they can be pesty or they can be the disease-carrying nasty ones like ticks and mosquitoes, and more frequent and warmer springs couldn’t really do a number on those population sizes — meaning in the negative way, cause them to increase and for diseases to be spread more rapidly. And the other one, this is not as dire, is that there’s increasing mismatch between some of these really charismatic events like lilacs flowering or tulips flowering, and festivals that have been planned many months, if not years in advance to celebrate that. So the Tidal Basin Cherry Blossom festival in DC is a huge one, and last spring our phones were ringing off the hook because back in January and February of last year, COVID was not really on our radar but early spring was in the news. The Southeast last year had a really early spring and so the newspapers in the DC area were contacting us on almost a daily basis through February because they were concerned that the cherry blossoms would peak flowering prior to the festival. It ended up that things kind of slowed down temperature-wise back in about March, and so I think that the cherry blossom peak was about six days ahead of what they had wanted it to be, but they ended up shutting everything down because of COVID anyways. So no one was there to see them anyway.

Ramesh
How does the research and the data that the NPN produces get used for things like climate change adaptation or climate change policy?

Theresa
We’re really kind of on the cusp, I think, of organizations recognizing the strength and the capacity and the potential there. But there have been some cool examples so far. One is that the data can really help with management. One great example is Midway Atoll is out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and it’s a fish and wildlife refuge that had become inundated by an invasive plant called Verbesina. And the managers there recognize that they could treat it, but they needed to treat it prior to when it was flowering and fruiting, because if you’re pulling the plant or otherwise disturbing it while it’s fruiting (when the seeds are ripe), then you’re just spreading it and that’s not helping. Since it’s near the equator, there’s not a real strong seasonality there and so the plant can flower just about any time of the year. What they did was track the phenology using Nature’s Notebook to understand not only when it was flowering, but what the cycle was, what the periodicity was for the plant (in terms of how long it was in flower, and then when it stopped flowering or had seeds ripe)? What was the window before it initiated flowering again? And they were able to identify that it wasn’t a very long duration between bouts of flowering and fruiting, but that they can establish what the minimum window would be, and then are using that as their timeframe for when they’re going out and seeking new populations and trying to control the existing populations. I think that they’ve had a pretty significant positive impact on the plant over the last couple of years, using this additional information, to help guide control measures.

Jacquelyn
For my last question, how has your work influenced your own understanding of climate change and its impacts? Has it changed you, personally?

Theresa
It’s really humbling, honestly, on both fronts. It’s first of all extremely humbling and so gratifying to be able to use data that I know people have painstakingly collected and submitted — not necessarily knowing who’s going to use it or if anybody’s ever going to look at it or what they might do with it. And it’s . . . I don’t know, it’s exciting to me. It is hard to be a part of the group of individuals that study how things are changing, often in a negative way. But I am excited by how many people are dedicated. The level of enthusiasm that folks bring to the program and especially when we’re contacted by somebody who wants to set up a new phenology program, “I just found out about your program and I would really love to get folks in my area involved,” that is just so cool. We have some truly amazing volunteers and some truly amazing leaders of the local phenology programs, that without them and their efforts we wouldn’t be what we are and we wouldn’t have what we have. I’m really lucky that I get to participate across the whole spectrum. I’m a contributor as a Nature’s Notebook participant; and I analyze the data as a scientist and extract patterns from it and try to make sense of it and try to share those results back to the participants; and I get to talk about it, which is really fun. It is really, really cool. I think it’s because we get to interact with really enthusiastic and dedicated volunteers that I have a lot of faith that there are good people out there that do care about the planet and nature, and there are a lot of them, and they’re freely volunteering their time and want to learn more and want to understand what they can do. That means that there’s hope.

[music]

Ramesh
Warm Regards is produced by Justin Schell. Additional production assistance for this episode came from Holli Konrad. Jo Stormer creates our transcripts, and Katherine Peinhardt is our social media maven. Music for this episode comes from Blue Dot Sessions.

You can find a transcript of this episode, listen to previous episodes, and find links to subscribe via the podcast platform of your choice on our website, WarmRegardsPodcast.com. Also, something that really helps more people learn about our show is if you could leave a quick review or rating, especially on Apple Podcasts.

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From all of us at Warm Regards, thanks for letting us into your head.

A podcast about life on the warming planet. Hosted by @JacquelynGill and @DrRamBio. Produced by @612to651

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