Tracking Climate Change by Observing Flowers

A nationwide initiative starting this month will enable volunteers to track climate change by observing the timing of flowers and foliage. Project BudBurst, operated by the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) and a team of partners, allows students, gardeners, and other citizen scientists in every state to enter their observations into an online database that will give researchers a detailed picture of our warming climate.

One of many different varieties of Cinquefoil that can be found growing wild in Colorado. (Photo by Carlye Calvin.)

The project, which will be launched on February 15, will operate year round so that early- and late-blooming species in different parts of the country can be monitored throughout their life cycles. Project BudBurst builds on a pilot program carried out last spring, when several thousand participants recorded the timing of the leafing and flowering of hundreds of plant species in 26 states.

The Chicago Botanic Garden and University of Montana are collaborators on Project BudBurst, which was funded with a grant from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. The project is also supported by the National Science Foundation and Windows to the Universe, a UCAR-based Web site that will host the project online as part of its citizen science efforts.

“Climate change may be affecting our backyards and communities in ways that we don’t even notice,” says project coordinator Sandra Henderson of UCAR’s Office of Education and Outreach. “Project BudBurst is designed to help both adults and children understand the changing relationship among climate, seasons, and plants, while giving the participants the tools to communicate their observations to others. Based on the success of last year’s pilot program, this project is capturing the public’s imagination in a way we never expected.”

Many species are being affected by climate change throughout the world. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that 20-30 percent of all plant and animal species studied by researchers will likely be at increased risk of extinction should global temperatures rise by 2.7 to 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit this century.

Along with the partners noted above, Project BudBurst collaborators include the Plant Conservation Alliance; USA-National Phenology Network; and the universities of Arizona; California, Santa Barbara; Wisconsin-Milwaukee; and Wisconsin-Madison.

The University Corporation for Atmospheric Research is a consortium of 70 universities offering Ph.D.s in the atmospheric and related sciences. UCAR manages the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and the UCAR Office of Programs (UOP).

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