“Timing is everything,” the saying goes. It’s true in life -- catching a wave, falling in love -- and in the natural world. In spring, snow melts and wildflowers bloom. Bears wake from hibernation. Migratory birds begin to flock north and the elk leave the refuge, headed to higher ground. But with climate change, these cyclical events aren’t happening at the same time every year. And plants are on the front lines of experiencing this change.
In the 1850s, Thoreau charted when Walden Pond’s highbush blueberry first flowered, generally around May 16. In the past 10 years, it has averaged around April 23, nearly three weeks earlier. This study of the timing of seasonal events is known as phenology. (Phen - to show, to bring to light, to appear.) When plants flower outside of their norm, migrating pollinator species, like birds and butterflies, miss their chance for that moment of interspecies-assisted coitus. Not surprisingly, this “phenological mismatch” can have broad consequences on species survival -- for both plants and animals.
Here in Jackson Hole, young upstart Trevor Bloom is looking at the timing of wildflower blooms. (Yes, apropos name for a botanist.) Bloom’s project, Wildflower Watch, builds upon the work of the renowned biologists Frank and John Craighead from the 1970s, who among many other legacies, took detailed notes of everything they saw outdoors near their home in Moose, Wyoming and published their findings in the popular book For Everything There is a Season: The Sequence of Natural Events in the Grand Teton-Yellowstone Area.
Now, nearly 40 years after the Craighead findings, a gaggle of citizen scientists have been recruited to document observations of leaf out, flowering, fruiting and seed drops of 14 different wildflower species at two locations in Jackson Hole. It’s the second year in a four-year long effort. Ultimately this information will get added to the National Phenology Network Database.
There’s probably a similar study happening near you, somewhere, wherever you are. Science, like art, boils down to observation, paying attention to the world around you. Science, like art, can force change. Science, like art, is something you can do.