Wednesday 4 June 2014

Phenomenal Phenology


After the exertions of the past fortnight up and down that ditch I thought you’d appreciate a quiet evening in the courtyard over a gin and tonic chatting about something you can all really get involved with and that is the phenomenal science of phenology. I say phenomenal because on the one hand it is terrifically simple and you need no scientific training whatsoever to be a phenologist and on the other hand your contribution could help to save thousands, if not millions, of lives in the future. A fantastic claim? Then let me explain. Take a look at those swifts up there.

Nesting Swallows
Those are the first swifts that I have seen this year and I shall record that fact as I have done every year since 2010. I do the same for the first swallows of spring as well and I finish up with a pretty little graph like this which gives me the impression that the birds are tending to arrive a little later than they used to. And that is all there is to it. From the Greek φαίνω (phainō), "to show, to bring to light, make to appear" + λόγος (logos), amongst others "study, discourse, reasoning" phenology is the science of recording when things happen in the natural world. I’m showing you the picture of the swallow with her brood not just because it’s a nice action picture but also to say that it is not just first sightings which you can record but first events as well such as first signs of nest building or when chicks fledge.

Poppy and Swallowtail Butterfly
OK, that’s what phenology is but what’s the point? Well, partially it can help to show the interconnectedness of the natural world. Take this phenology showing the relationships between flowers and insects for example. Poppies are representing the flowers and Swallowtail Butterflies are representing the insects. Notice how closely the appearance of the insects follows the appearance of the flowers. I see from my weather records that 2011 was a very dull spring with about six times the average rainfall in April.

Black Redstart
Which brings me round to the Englishman’s favourite subject: the weather. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist (or a professor of biology for that matter) to realize that weather and nature are very closely tied together. You do, however, have to see the big picture.  Take the autumn appearance of the Black Redstart for example. He can appear any time from day 294 (October 21st) to day 341 (December 7th) and this shows little or no correlation to the weather conditions out here. I would expect the dates to show quite a strong correlation to the weather conditions in north eastern Europe however as this is where they have spent the summer raising their broods and it is inclement weather up there that is going to trigger them to move.

Rising mean temperatures in south east Crete are contributing to desertification
Now to the saving lives bit. Weather is what happens on a day-to-day basis. If you add a lot of weathers together that’s climate and the climate, as we know, is changing. This in itself is no great problem to mankind: we’ve been through ice ages before and survived and we’re very adaptable creatures. It was only 5,200 years ago when we went through the last severe global warming event when the sun got the hiccups and the Sahara desert became uninhabitable. People just got up and moved to somewhere more hospitable. But there’s the rub: 5,200 years ago the world’s population was only 250,000,000 (imagine Indonesia being the only inhabited place today and the rest of the world being devoid of human life and you’ll get the picture). The current world population is now approaching 7,250,000,000 and 90% live in the tropics. And just to make it really interesting this is a period of rapid climate change and an awful lot of people are going to want to move very soon, at a very conservative estimate we’re talking tens of millions if not in excess of 100,000,000. 

This is where your phenology comes in. In the not so distant past we all had a much closer association with the natural world around us and by observing the plants and animals we had an intuitive feel of weather changes in the coming days or weeks. Now we have to examine the phenology of plants and animals on a global scale so that, in conjunction with the meteorologists and climate scientists, we can have some hope of predicting what will happen, where and when and help people to move in an orderly fashion rather than have them turn up on each others doorsteps when the wave breaks. There are already a number of phenology surveys around the world where you can record your observations and many more will surely follow. If your country isn’t yet listed then keep records anyway, they may be of vital importance.

Countries with phenology surveys:



Naturalists (the facebook page that accompanies this blog)

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