Changing Seasons and a Changing Climate
Around this time of year, everyone starts to get spring fever. Last week, we had strong southerly winds blow in our first 60 degree day. Like clockwork, we see people wearing shorts and T-shirts doing summer activities with a frozen lake in the background. The winter warm-up also gets everyone chattering: “Will this be an early year?” but “the groundhog did see its shadow?” yeah but “the farmer’s almanac says unseasonably warm weather ahead.”
So how do we really know how plants are responding to our dynamic climate? Are our flowers really blooming earlier and the leaves turning later? Does anyone keep track of that kind of information? Thankfully, the answer is yes. A multitude of seasonal changes in our environment are kept track of by people called phenologists. Phenology is the study of the timing of natural events in plant and animal life and their relation to climate. It can be as simple as making visual observations of how a plant species responds throughout the seasons and keeping a written record.
The fun thing about this discipline is that anyone can start to practice phenology, you don’t need to be a professional scientist to keep phenological records. The natural world has a lot to teach us if we simply take the time to stop and observe. Making careful observations of the natural world and the interconnectedness within it will increase your knowledge and appreciation of the outdoors. One way to keep track of your observations is keeping a journal or log. If you are interested in contributing to phenology research efforts, there are several citizen science projects available online such as Nature’s Notebook and the Minnesota Phenology Network.
We recommend choosing a few plant or animal species that you are most interested in and what is convenient for you. Making observations in your backyard is great, but if you have the time, think about expanding your range and include a nearby park. If you live near water, perhaps you can keep record of the first loon calls, lilypad blooms, or frog and toad choruses. If you live near woods, you may notice the first trees leaf out, warblers return, and the first leaf change in the fall. Phenologists find it important to record the entire phenophase of the species under study. The phenophase includes the beginning of the event – the ‘first’ – and the end of the event – the ‘last.’
As we begin to feel the effects of climate change, we often wonder how the plants and animals around us will be affected. Because phenology is directly related to photoperiod, rainfall, and temperature, we can better understand how species will respond to a changing climate. Some phenological records date back to the 1800s, so there is really valuable quantitative data. This data helps scientists evaluate plant and animal changes over time and how they relate to climate change.
According to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, from 1951 to 2012 the Twin Cities has seen annual average temperatures increase by 3.2° F and annual precipitation increase of 5.5 inches. These changes don’t affect all plants and animals equally, and we are just beginning to learn the impacts on individual species and ecosystems. Researchers are also investigating how plant and insect interactions are affected. Timing is everything. Insect behavior is in sync with flower bloom periods. If these relationships are thrown off by climate change, this may ultimately lead to less plant diversity and limited food sources for pollinators.
As we all become more educated about our surroundings, we start to really understand how we are all interconnected and how timing drives our environment. For instance, let’s look at a very basic natural shore edge in a backyard. We have columbine and marsh marigold bloom in spring, blazing star and coneflowers bloom in mid-summer, and goldenrods and asters bloom in fall. It is critical for an ecosystem to have plants that bloom both early and late in the growing season to supply food to pollinators, especially the first emerging bees.
At Natural Shore, we have a wide variety native plants that bloom from April through October. We have restoration experts on staff that can help you add diversity and lengthen the bloom time of the natural area on your property. We are here to help and excited to learn about your project!
“During every week from April to September there are, on the average, ten wild plants coming into first bloom. In June as many as a dozen species may burst their buds on a single day. No man can heed all of these anniversaries; no man can ignore all of them. He who steps unseeing on May dandelions may be hauled up short by August ragweed pollen; he who ignores the ruddy haze of April elms may skid his car on the fallen corollas of June catalpas. Tell me of what plant-birthday a man takes notice, and I shall tell you a good deal about this vocation, his hobbies, his hay fever, and the general level of his ecological education.” -Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac