Staff members of Hawthorne Valley’s Farmscape Ecology Program have partnered with Community Greenways Collaborative and the New York Phenology Project to co-author a paper, published in the Journal of Ecology, documenting a dramatic, climate-driven shift in the timing of leaf-out and flowering for a number of plants.

A Farmscape Ecology Program intern and volunteer monitor a phenology trail at Hawthorne Valley.

The paper was the result of research and analysis that began eight years ago, when Dr. Conrad Vispo, co-founder of the Farmscape Ecology Program (FEP) at Hawthorne Valley, uncovered a unique treasure trove of 19th century records from around New York State documenting the timing of the seasonal life cycle events—known as phenology—of many different plant and animal species. Observations such as when the apple trees were in flower or the Red Maples in leaf were carefully recorded as part of an early meteorological network that initially was comprised of New York State academies (secondary schools) before expanding more widely. The network collected data from 1826-1871.

“At first, I just noticed occasional references to some apparent reservoir of historical phenology data. Slowly, it became clear how extensive and intentional this data-gathering project was. I think we’re too prone to disparage older science as antiquated, but in this case, those data are unique and still very relevant,” Conrad explained.

The Farmscape team began to digitize and standardize the resulting data set, now available through a searchable browser here. They then partnered with Dr. Kerissa Fuccillo Battle of Community Greenways Collaborative to complete the digitization/standardization work. Together, the new partners set out to explore how this historical data set might be paired with recent records—from the current state-wide phenology network of citizen scientists called the New York Phenology Project—to advance scientific understanding of the effects of climate change on seasonal plant cycles.

For Kerissa, getting the call from Conrad that revealed the existence of a historical phenology network in New York so similar to the contemporary network she had launched in 2012 was a watershed moment. “I had to sit down,” she explained, as she grasped its significance in allowing for a comparative analysis across two networks, two centuries apart. She recruited faculty from Portland State University and the USA-National Phenology Network to the team to assist with this monumental undertaking; they are also co-authors on the paper.

The results of that analysis were compelling. “It was startling to see the extent of shift, sometimes nearly a month, for some of these species,” explained Kerissa. While other works have documented some of the phenological changes, the extent and breadth of the data allowed Kerissa and her colleagues to explore the changes in much more depth, including an analysis of how this shift varies across settings, species, and functional groups. Plants in urban areas, insect-pollinated trees, and early-season species show the greatest advancement overall.

The benefits and the impact of this study go beyond just the data and scientific results, too. Phenology data collection is an accessible experience for observers of all ages and backgrounds. Since uncovering the historical phenology data, the Farmscape Ecology Program has also worked with the New York Phenology Project to facilitate the creation of “phenology trails” in Columbia County that have involved volunteers and students in phenology monitoring, including a phenology trail that will be opening to the public this summer at the Martin Van Buren National Historic Site and has interpretive signage that features data from this study. “The experience of participating as a citizen scientist in phenology research,” said Kerissa, “can serve as an empowering and non-partisan way to contribute to the field of climate change research at both the individual and community level.”

“This study is a testament to the value of individuals observing the seasonal changes around them, and the power of working together in a network, whether in the 1800s or today,” expressed Anna Duhon of the Farmscape Ecology Program. “We hope it invites people to appreciate and respond to the ecological impacts of climate change, while at the same time encouraging us all to participate in the enticing process of watching the seasons pass.”

The full open source paper is available in the upcoming issue of the Journal of Ecology (early view now online).