A changing climate has a range of implications for communities, including threats to human health, food supply, recreation and tourism, and our terrestrial and marine environments. Involving community members in scientific discovery and decision-making builds local capacity to understand and mitigate climate change impacts. By engaging in public participation in scientific research, community members can participate in the scientific process by selecting monitoring locations and species of interest, collecting data, interpreting results and comparing information to other communities across the region.
“Signs of the Seasons: A New England Phenology Program,” initiated in 2010, engages citizens of all ages in observing and recording seasonal changes in common plants and animals in backyards and community green space throughout Maine, including Acadia National Park, and southern New Hampshire.
The program, coordinated by University of Maine Cooperative Extension and Maine Sea Grant, aims to build knowledge and raise awareness about climate change while developing a detailed record of the region’s biological response to global climate change. The goals provide a science engagement opportunity for organizations and volunteers while also providing useful information to partner researchers.
Throughout the year, trained volunteers track seasonal changes in 19 plants and animals including easily identified and regionally important species such as the American robin, wood frog, monarch butterfly, milkweed, forsythia, and red and sugar maples, as well as coastal species such as the intertidal seaweed Ascophyllum nodosum, the common loon and beach rose.
Each year, an average of 230,000 observations are submitted to the National Phenology Network’s online database, Nature’s Notebook, where they are accessible to the public, and contribute to a growing national repository of phenology data; a resource too costly to build without a network of citizen volunteers.
To provide useful data to scientists and resource managers, Signs of the Seasons has engaged partners including Acadia National Park and Schoodic Institute.
Abraham Miller-Rushing, science coordinator for Acadia National Park and the Schoodic Education and Research Center, has been on the Signs of the Seasons advisory committee since 2010. He has worked with Acadia and Schoodic Institute staff to develop interpretive programs and conduct ongoing intertidal and upland phenology monitoring initiatives at the park that contribute data to the program, while advancing the park’s climate research priorities.
Signs of the Seasons and Acadia also are collaborating with Maine Maritime Academy researcher Jessica Muhlin, who is using data from the program to re-evaluate a historical model of ocean temperature-mediated reproduction in rockweed. Signs of the Seasons observations from Schoodic Peninsula and other sites along the coast of Maine and New Hampshire indicate that rockweed started reproduction onset in 2014 and 2015 significantly earlier than in the past.
The program also has partnered with Maine Audubon’s Loon Project to help understand if climate is a factor in low survival rates of chicks in Maine. Signs of the Seasons volunteers also study maple trees as part of the National Phenology Network’s Green Wave Campaign to evaluate how the trees, which provide the basis of the state’s maple syrup industry, are affected by a changing climate.
Signs of the Seasons provides feedback and data to participants through webinars, its website, Facebook and regional climate change events in Maine. Now in its sixth year, the program is on its way to building a detailed record of the region’s seasonal turns.
Beth Bisson is associate director of Maine Sea Grant College Program at UMaine. Esperanza Stancioff is an associate extension professor with University of Maine Cooperative Extension and Maine Sea Grant.