Citizen Science

A Citizen Science Project for All Seasons

April 1, 2014

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California poppies are one of Project BudBurst's top 10 plants. Photo by Flickr user Brian through a Creative Commons License.
California poppies are one of Project BudBurst's top 10 plants. Photo by Flickr user Brian through a Creative Commons License.

Welcome to Citizen Science Tuesday, our new weekly blog feature that focuses on fun ways you can help scientists gather data and benefit conservation. We begin with a look at Project BudBurst.

What is Project BudBurst?

Are the apple trees in your backyard blooming earlier than normal? Are the flowers in the city park behind due to an icy spring? Project BudBurst wants to know.

The information you share could help scientists determine how plants are being affected by climate change.

You’ll be assisting a science known as phenology: the study of the timing in seasonal changes.

Why do April showers bring May flowers? How do leaves “know” when to fall from trees? Why did the apple tree flower earlier this year than ten years ago? These are all questions that relate to plant phenology.

Project BudBurst looks at plant phenology in relation to climate change.

The project gathers data on all kinds of plants including wildflowers & herbs, trees, shrubs, and grasses. One of the important aspects of the project is tracking when plants bloom, allowing scientists to track changes due to climate change and other factors.

You contribute important data about plants in your area. The scientists at Project BudBurst collect the data from all contributors, study it, and share it with the world.

Why is it important?

The timing of plant changes like blooming and flowering might sound too simple to be important, but when all of the data is brought together, it can tell a story about climate change.

The warming of the planet is not distributed equally, so some areas are more likely to see changes in plant phenology than others.

“One of the coolest things is that not all plants respond to changing environments in the same way,” says Sarah Newman of Project BudBurst.

She reports that Project BudBurst compared data from 2007-2009 in the Chicago area to historical studies that date back as far as 1954.

“We found that forsythia has shifted its bloom date earlier by almost a month in that time period, but dogtooth violets in the same region have only shifted their bloom date by about 5 days.”

The data collected are made available so that they can be used in other ways.

For instance, the data could be used to predict the timing of cherry blossoms in the D.C. area – information that could improve the timing of the National Cherry Blossom Festival!

According to Newman, professional and citizen scientists “are getting data on how plants are changing, responding, and what we can do to help them.”

Citizen scientists, like you, can collectively cover more ground and gather more data than scientists would be able to get on their own – creating a big picture of plant changes across time and space in the United States.

Cherry blossoms in Washington, D. C. Photo by Flickr user sneakerdog through a Creative Commons license.
Cherry blossoms in Washington, D.C. Photo by Flickr user sneakerdog through a Creative Commons license.

How do you get involved?

Join Project BudBurst and start recording your observations of when trees start to show buds and when flowers start to bloom today.

They are looking for data from anywhere in the United States.

There are three simple steps: observe, record, and submit.

No special equipment or prior knowledge is required. There are how tos for beginners on observing and identifying plants. And all it takes is one tree.

If time is an issue, there are options. You can submit just one observation, or, if you find yourself hooked, record multiple observations of the same plant or set of plants over time.

Project BudBurst also provides information and activities for teachers who want to get their students involved. There are projects appropriate for ages ranging from kindergarten to the university level.

The process doesn’t have to stop with recording information.

Classrooms or individuals can use the data for their own projects. As Newman says, “There are an infinite number of ways to use Project BudBurst to get students involved in inquiry.”

So check out the plants in your neighborhood, and start recording. You’ll learn more about your local flora, and help our understanding of climate change in the process.

Lisa Feldkamp

Lisa Feldkamp is the senior coordinator for new science audiences. She loves all things citizen science and enjoys learning about everything that goes on four legs, two wings or fins. She has a PhD in Classical Literature and Languages from the University of Wisconsin - Madison and enjoys reading Greek and Roman literature or talking about mythology in her spare time. More from Lisa

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