Climate Watch: Get Ready to Enlist

Isn’t it a downer? Barely a day goes by that we don’t hear about another animal, glacier, or island that’s sinking in the tide of climate change. But what can you do about it? Screw in more energy-efficient light bulbs. Drive fewer miles. Walk more. Eat less meat. Yes, those are all good, but what about enlisting in the fight? What if you could stand arm and arm with some of the scientists who are trying to gauge what’s happening on the ground and forecast the future?

If that sounds enticing, you’re in luck. A new national project aiming to closely monitor climate change will soon be looking for eager citizen recruits. The Wildlife Phenology Program plans to be the first countrywide effort to determine how climate change is mucking up the seasonal timing of many plant and animal lifecycles. Leading the effort is the USA-National Phenology Network and The Wildlife Society, a non-profit group, in collaboration with land managers, scientific organizations, and academia. But the biggest contributors will be average people who are willing to step outside and look closely at what’s going on in nature.

“Some of the best datasets we already have come from citizen scientists,” says Jake Weltzin, executive director of the National Phenology Network and an ecologist with the US Geologic Survey. “Most famously we had Henry David Thoreau, who in the 1850s recorded the flowering dates of 600 plant species found around Walden Pond—and he did this for eight years. That’s phenomenal data!”

Still working in the planning stages, Weltzin and his colleagues are hoping to have a final list of bellwether species—plants, mammals, birds, insects, amphibians, reptiles, fish and other aquatic creatures—within the next two months. February 15, 2010, is the date upon which they intend to officially dispatch their troops of citizen volunteers. Armed with tools and protocols, the volunteers will collect and log data on species’ activities, as well as weather, rainfall, temperature, and nutrient composition.  “We will gather information that can be used to predict migration times, disease spread, and ecosystem and animal distribution changes,” says Weltzin. “This nationwide network will help provide decision-makers with the solid information they need.”

A variety of existing programs already monitor individual groups of flora and fauna. National Audubon Society and Cornell Lab of Ornithology, for instance, charge citizen scientists with monitoring birds through programs like the Christmas Bird Count. Frogwatch, currently run by the National Wildlife Federation, zeroes in on amphibians. Project Budburst, which only started last year, has  volunteers observing the season’s first: buds, leafing, flower, seed and fruit dispersal. The Wildlife Phenology Program aims to have 40,000 volunteer reporting sites once it is up and running.

So when it's your time to serve, be sure to heed the call. And with Christmas just around the corner, there's no better time to get started by joining one of longest running efforts that's tracking bird population trends. Sign up to participate in this year's Christmas Bird Count.

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