Citizen Scientists Aid In Global Warming Research

By KATE ELIZABETH QUERAM, Capital News Service

BALTIMORE (April 1, 2008) - Kim Long has been a gardener for years. It's a way for her to be outside in the yard on the weekends - to "play," she said.

Recently, Long began tracking the life cycle stages of her plants - things like first leaf and first bud - in hopes of helping to chart the specifics of climate change in the United States. And she's far from the only one.

Across the country, more than 3,000 hikers, naturalists, school students and gardeners have registered for Project BudBurst, a volunteer effort headed by the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), a group that studies earth and atmospheric science. The nonprofit coalition includes scientists at research universities, including the University of Maryland.

BudBurst participants create a free account and then log onto the BudBurst website to enter the observed plant phases into an online database. This is the first year the project has been open to citizens nationwide.

This data can be used to track climate change because the point in the season when the plants go through their life phases will vary depending on temperature, said Sandra Henderson, a science educator with UCAR. The data can be compared with historical records to see if temperature increases are affecting plant life.

"Plants are going to respond to seasonal change," Henderson said. "When the right conditions are there - the temperature's right, there's enough sunlight, enough water availability - the plants are going to go ahead and start their thing for the year.

"This is going to change," she continued. "It's not going to be the exact same date every year, and as you can imagine, if the climate is indeed changing, we're going to see the onset of spring a little earlier. It will be a little warmer, and the plants can then safely start their life cycle."

Because climate change is gradual - according to the Environmental Protection Agency, the average surface temperature of the earth has risen 1 degree Fahrenheit since the mid-1970s - the data collected by Project BudBurst's "citizen scientists" will be at first compared to historical data and, in the future, to BudBurst data from previous years. If the plants go through their life stages earlier from year to year, it can help show the effects of climate change, Henderson said.

Since this is Long's first year tracking these types of changes in her own garden, she doesn't have anything to compare her data to. But because her garden is large, spanning the entire reach of her Baltimore yard, and contains so many different types of plants, she's already been able to enter data into the website.

"The rhododendrons are evergreen," Long said, in her garden, pointing to a short green plant. "So, I just entered the first bud."

Though BudBurst participants range from occasional hikers to schoolteachers, UCAR's Henderson said that gardeners tend to make the perfect participants because they "are a group of people who are very prone to keeping journals and recording dates and times."

This is true of Long, who has kept journals about her garden since she first began planting.

"I keep a record of what I plant and how I water or trim things, because I'm a beginner," said Long, who a few years ago moved from a condo with a balcony to a house with a yard. "So if I trim something and it comes back badly, I know not to do it again."

Long also keeps a detailed map of her backyard, sectioned into eight areas with a complete list of what's planted where, so she doesn't forget. She did this before joining Project BudBurst, so participating in the data collection feels natural to her.

"I thought I could see the results and then I could track them from year to year," Long said. "But I also thought it would be good if it would benefit someone doing environmental research, because I am concerned with the state of the environment ... I've always been kind of a tree-hugger."

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