Eastern Sierra volunteers recently wrapped up the first full year of a study on the effects of climate change at the Valentine Reserve and Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Laboratory (SNARL) in and near Mammoth Lakes. The efforts are part of a larger California Phenology Project, which by observing and recording the life stages of selected plants over many years aims to track the effects of climate change on state ecosystems. Phenology is the study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena, such as budding and bird migrations, especially in relation to climate.
The Phenology Project began in 2010 with seven national parks, but expanded to eight University of California Natural Reserves in 2011. “At the most basic level, we wanted to increase the geographic range and sample sizes of each of our monitored species,” said Project lead and U.C. Santa Barbara Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Susan Mazer; “consequently, almost all of the species being monitored in the Reserves are also being monitored in one or more of our selected national parks.”
Mazer received the initial grant for the Project from the National Park Service. She received a second, smaller grant to expand the project to the eight U.C. Reserves. Altogether, the Project has established more than 100 monitoring sites between the parks and reserves.
The Reserves offer the boon not only of increased geographic range and sample size of species, but also of greater volunteer presence, Mazer said. She is currently working on the Phenology Project with the help of graduate student Brian Haggerty, postdoctoral fellow Elizabeth Mathews, and a cadre of other scientists, teachers, and volunteers. “We knew that the U.C. Natural Reserves often attract significant numbers of docents and volunteers who are eager to participate in scientific research,” she explained. “With a little bit of training, even botanical novices can learn how to record highly reliable phenological data that can be contributed to the USA National Phenology Network’s nationwide data base.”
As Valentine Reserve Director Dan Dawson said, “This is true ‘citizen science.’”
The Phenology Project came to Valentine and SNARL in spring 2012. At Valentine, eight volunteers monitor Quaking Aspen, Greenleaf Manzanita, Common Cowparsnip, Large-leaved lupine, Antelope Bitterbrush, Wooly Mule’s Ears. At SNARL, volunteers monitor Quaking Aspen, Large-leaved Lupine, Antelope Bitterbrush, and Rubber Rabbitbrush. Volunteers monitor individual plants once per week from May to October, said volunteer Sherry Taylor. Mazer added that volunteers pay close attention to plants “particularly during phenologically active portions of the year, [such as] when bud break, flowering, and fruiting begin.”
While the study at Valentine Reserve and SNARL is still too young to yield any conclusions about the effects of climate change in our area, the California Phenology Project has provided insight into the effects of climate change on other Californian ecosystems, Mazer said. She offered the example of the Silky Beach Pea at Redwood National Park, as it flowered significantly earlier in 2013 than in 2012, “Which may be due to 2013 having lower minimum winter temperatures and less rainfall than in winter 2012,” she explained. “Often, people assume, and for many species this is the case, that cooler conditions will result in delayed flowering. But some species flower earlier following colder winters, perhaps because they need the chill in order to flower as soon as winter transitions to spring.”
Another example closer to home is the California Buckeye, “which we monitored in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, [and] shows a pattern similar to Silky Beach Pea,” Mazer said. “These are just [a few] of numerous examples in which the California Phenology Project has detected strong effects of climatic conditions on the flowering or fruiting times of the native plant species that we’re monitoring.”
But why are these changes so important? Because, as the U.C. Natural Reserve System website points out, changes to our ecosystems as a result of climate change “have major implications for both nature and people. Warblers that migrate earlier than insects hatch could starve. Rodents that require colder conditions could shift their ranges upslope. Flowers that bloom before bees emerge might never get pollinated.”
With the California Phenology Project, “We aim to generate robust predictions concerning how individual species will respond to climatic variables, such as mean minimum and maximum monthly temperatures and cumulative seasonal rainfall, that are likely to change in the future,” Mazer said. “For species that represent important food resources for pollinators, birds and mammals, these predictions will help resource managers to identify years in which these animals may experience serious food deficits.” She offered the example of increased bear-human interactions as a result of a decline in acorn crops.
Given the importance of such data collection and its implications for land management and restoration practices, both Mazer and Dawson agreed that the study should continue in perpetuity.
“We hope that it will continue for many decades,” Mazer said. “Ideally forever,” concluded Dawson.