Is Phenology a Climate Metric? The Reason for a National Phenology Network

The answer is a definitive yes! Phenology is defined as “the study of natural phenomena that recur periodically, such as migration or blossoming, and their relation to climate and changes in season” (Webster’s New World dictionary, 3rd Edition). Last week I attended a meeting in Tucson where a Workshop, organized by Julio Betancourt of the University of Arizona and Mark Schwartz of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, was held to plan a National Phenology Network (NPN). The plan is to involve volunteers through the country to monitor a variety of plants, insects and birds and to transmit information on their phenological stage in real-time to be used by government and private agencies, as well as anyone interested in this aspect of our environment. The NPN also proposes to co-locate sites with the new National Weather Service (NWS) COOP Modernization locations (This NWS plan, developed under the direction of Professor Ken Crawford from the University of Oklahoma is described in NOAA’s NWS Cooperative Weather Observer website).

This new data source would complement those observations of temperature and precipitation data that have been collected, mostly by volunteers, for over a century in the United States, and which is the basis for much of our knowledge of long term trends in temperature and precipitation. The COOP Modernization is building onto this data set by adding real-time and automation to the collection of quality multi-decadal data.

The addition of phenology as part of our long term assessment will provide a valuable new set of climate metrics. The greening of the landscape in the spring, for example, has been shown to significantly affect the temperature rise as we enter the warm season (see Schwartz, M. D., 1994: Monitoring global change with phenology: The case for the spring green wave. Int. J. of Biometeorology). This greening, as it alters the heat and moisture fluxes into the atmosphere, and the surface reflectance of solar insolation, is not just a response to weather, but feedbacks to influence temperatures, precipitation and other atmospheric variables, such as shown in Eastman et al. (2001).

There are already effective phenology networks. The European Phenology Network, Canada’s Naturewatch program, The United Kingdom Phenology Network , and the Ruby-throated hummingbird spring migration provide excellent examples for a USA Phenology Network. Information that is monitored and analyzed on these sites provide valuable information on environmental variables that are significant components of the climate system (such as the greening of vegetation in the spring) and information on environmental resources (such as the humming birds) which are primarily responders to the climate.

This broadening of climate variables provides information we need to better understand the climate system as identified in the National Research Council Report (see Figure 1-1 in that report) where “fauna and flora” are explicitly recognized as climate variables. We will keep you updated as the NPN planning matures.

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