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April 18, 2016

With the White House’s launch of and the inaugural Citizen Science Day this Saturday April 16, 2016, the U.S. Geological Survey invites you to look into a landscape of opportunities to participate in science! 


Celebrate citizen science and get outside!

Woman making plant observations for Nature's Notebook
Woman making plant observations for Nature's Notebook. Credit Brian F. Powell


This spring, get outside and track the life cycle events of plants and animals with Nature’s Notebook and help improve our understanding of how variations in climate affect our natural world.  Join over 7,000 observers across the country in recording the recurring events you see in the lives of the plants and animals around you, such as when cherry trees or lilac bushes blossom, when robins build their nests, when salmon swim upstream to spawn, or when leaves turn color in the fall.  The name for this type of scientific observation is “phenology.”

Nature’s Notebook is the professional and “citizen science” phenology observing program sponsored by the U.S. Geological Survey through the USA National Phenology Network (USA-NPN).  USGS conducts research not only on science subjects ranging from earthquakes to floods to climate change, but also on plants and animals, all to advance science and help society. 

Observing the biological side of nature is not only fun, but it also serves a greater purpose:  data on plants and animals over time tell us how species are responding to climate change.  As in all things, there are likely to be winners and losers…we desperately need to figure out which species can adapt to climate change, and which species might need extra assistance from us as the world changes. 

Citizen science helps the nation!

Citizen science – and Nature’s Notebook – gained prominence in September 2015 at the White House Office forum entitled, Open Science and Innovation: Of the People, By the People, For the People.” The forum brought together stakeholders from local, state, federal and tribal governments, as well as researchers and representatives from the public and private sector, to discuss how to best use crowdsourcing and citizen science to advance science and to contribute to society.  At the forum, John Holdren, the Science Advisor to the President, described how citizen science benefits scientific research, addresses societal needs, and provides hands-on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) for a diversity of learners.  Holdren also announced the rollout of the Federal Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Toolkit to help agencies design, conduct and manage citizen science and crowdsourcing projects – like Nature’s Notebook – across the federal government.  Nature’s Notebook is also featured in the new federal agency Climate Resilience Toolkit, which further attests to the value of citizen science and phenology information to science and society.

What is Nature’s Notebook telling us? 

Changes in plant and animal phenology are among the most sensitive biological indicators of local, regional and global change. In the United States and around the world, many springtime events around the world are occurring earlier — and fall events happening later — than in the past. These changes are happening quickly for some species and more slowly – or not at all – for others, altering relationships and processes that may have been essentially stable for thousands of years. 

Start of spring 2016, as estimated through an index of early-leafing plants as of April 7, 2016
Start of spring 2016, as estimated through an index of early-leafing plants as of April 7, 2016.


In fact, the earlier springs seen in recent decades may soon become a permanent change. Researchers at University of Wisconsin--Madison predict that by the end of this century, spring will appear about three weeks earlier than it does currently across the continental U.S. Even larger shifts of up to four weeks are likely across the Great Plains and mountainous regions of the west.  False springs, or the return of freezing temperatures (or frosts) after initial spring growth in plants, are also likely to increase in the Great Plains and portions of the Midwest. This study (published in Environmental Research Letters) used USA-NPN models of leaf-out and flowering, called the Spring Indices, to predict changes in the start of spring.

The Spring Indices were constructed using ground-based observations of lilac and honeysuckle data held by USA-NPN, and provide a useful model of the start of leaf-out and blooming for native and agricultural plants. This year, the USA-NPN has applied models of the Spring Indices to current temperature data to map the start of spring, as represented by these models, on a fine scale.

Over the last few years, data collected by Nature’s Notebook observers have also allowed researchers to predict the expansion of allergenic ragweed (Chapman et al 2014), predict the shift of fall leaf color to later in the fall (Jeong and Medvigy 2014) and better understand the temperatures required by woody plants to come out of dormancy in a world with warmer winters (Fu et al 2015). To date, data collected through Nature’s Notebook have contributed to over 20 peer-reviewed scientific publications.


Difference from average in timing of the start of Spring 2016
Difference from average in the timing of the start of Spring 2016, as estimated through an index of early-leafing plants as of April 7, 2016.

Data submitted to Nature’s Notebook are helping researchers understand not only how plants and animals are responding to climate change, but also how those responses are affecting people and ecological systems. This information is already being used by Network partners to inform decisions, including timing the application of herbicide or conducting other restoration activities to maximize their efficacy, or for when to take measures to avoid damage to lives and property from sudden insect swarms such as mayfly emergence along the Mississippi River.

Why should we care?

Jake Weltzin, an ecologist with USGS and the executive director of the USA-NPN noted that although an earlier spring brings early birds, beautiful flowers and glorious days at the shore, it also brings us earlier-arriving allergies and pests like ticks and mosquitoes, and yes, mayflies. And while a longer growing season can result in increased yields for some crops, it is risky because of the higher likelihood of plant damage caused by late frosts or summer drought. For example, in springs 2007 and 2012, crops of nuts, fruits and vegetables in portions of the South and the Midwest were damaged when very early springs were followed by frosts.

Some wildlife – like caribou, butterflies, and hummingbirds – are becoming out of sync with their plant food resources, which are often responding to earlier warming temperatures.  Migration timing and patterns for some birds are changing, as they can now overwinter instead of moving south for the winter, or as they fly north, adjusting their pace to keep up with an advancing front of spring flowering. 

Working farms and ranches benefit from phenology observation information too:  pollination by native insects contributes more than $3 billion in agricultural crops each year. Climate-driven changes in the phenology of crops and native insects could change the effectiveness of insect pollination for better or for worse, which complicates management decisions.  However, because little is known about how pollinator phenology is changing, it is difficult to accurately assess how crops will be affected and how farmers might best adapt. By collecting observations of insect phenology and crop phenology together, the USA-NPN is contributing to our understanding of the changes taking place and helping to ensure the viability of crops across the country.

Monarch butterfly on flower
Monarch butterfly on flower. Credit Brian F. Powell

Want to know more about observed changes in plant and animal phenology in your region over the last century? Explore the USA-NPN’s series of regional information sheets: Alaska and the Arctic; Great Plains; Hawai’i and the Pacific Islands; Midwest; Northeast; Pacific Northwest; Southeast; and Southwest.

More info on how you can get involved…

In three simple steps, you can become a citizen scientist: 1. Join Nature’s Notebook by visiting, 2. Choose the location and species you’ll observe, and 3. Start observing!

This spring, you can participate in one or more Nature’s Notebook observing campaigns, which focus on species of special value to society and that help researchers get the data they need.  This year, you can “Catch the Green Wave,” be a “Flower Follower,” track “Shady Invaders,” become a “Southwest Season Tracker,” or join “Mayfly Watch,” depending on where you live. Visit the campaigns pages to find a campaign in your area.

Image: Saguaro Cactus
Arizona saquaro will be one of the species looked at by USA-NPN volunteers.Public domain

Can’t find a campaign to suit you? There are many other kinds of species across the nation that you can track with Nature’s Notebook, including plants, birds, mammals, insects, fish, reptiles and amphibians.

So help federal agencies this spring, and all year-round, by contributing valuable observations in nature for research.  Your observations inform scientific discovery and decision-making.

More about the USA-NPN

The USA National Phenology Network is a partnership among governmental and nongovernmental science and resource management agencies and organizations, the academic community and the public.  There are more ways to get involved – partner your organization with the Network, let us know about legacy phenology data sets or even share a dataset you may have already collected, or help us rescue historical bird migration datasets. For more information visit USA-NPN or contact Jake Weltzin at

Other links:

Other Citizen Science at USGS

Also check out a blog on the importance of citizen science, written by staff at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. 


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