July 3, 2008

Cornell's Project Budbreak encourages citizens to study local effects of climate change

For most people, climate change seems an intractable problem, involving such distant issues as melting Arctic ice and threatened polar bears. But now, concerned citizens can get involved by studying the effects of global warming on plants in their own backyards.

Cornell's Project Budbreak, created by David Weinstein, a Cornell senior research associate in natural resources, uses the power of citizen scientists to gather wide-ranging data about the timing of flower, leaf and fruit development and leaf drop, among other measurements, in common native trees and herbaceous plants in central New York.

Over time, these measurements could reveal important information about "how changing temperatures might be endangering some of our central New York plants," said Weinstein.

Having the same kinds of measurements each year over a large geographical area will help researchers determine whether the development of native plants is going out of sync with the annual development of the insects they rely on for pollination, for example.

The project started in winter 2007 and represents central New York in the National Phenology Network. Weinstein said researchers will need at least five to 10 years of data before any climate trends become apparent.

Another citizen-science group, the Lilac Phenology Network, has been recording data on lilacs since the late 1950s. Leaf out and flowering dates can swing by as much as 10 days from year to year, Weinstein said. But, on average, the data revealed that lilacs are flowering a full eight days earlier than they were in the late 1950s in the United States and Canada.

To participate in Project Budbreak, volunteer citizen scientists need to register on the Web site and choose which plants and what type of data they want to track. To help participants become more familiar with plants and stages of growth, Weinstein and colleagues are completing a series of online videos that show how to make observations of different plants in various stages of development. Eventually, Weinstein plans to have an online image and video library of local plants in all stages of development.

Soon, the project's data also will be linked to Cornell's Northeast Regional Climate Center, so participants can examine weather records and patterns and compare those with the plant data.

Users also can access their own data or view cumulative data for any geographical area within the region.

This type of citizen-science project generates a great breadth of data, said Weinstein. "Citizen scientists are producing data that have a lot of reliability. Any decrease in reliability as compared to trained scientists is made up for by the fact that citizen scientists can take a grand sweep of patterns over large regions," he said.