I am in Milwaukee, where the Phenology 2012 conference has just ended, except for a field trip to a bog tomorrow. It is a small but powerful conference, with scientists and science students from 21 countries. It is one of the most remarkable conferences I have attended. Thanks go to Mark Schwartz at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, who has been one of the world leaders in phenology research for decades—his hard work made this conference a success in every detail.
Phenology is the study of seasonal patterns of organisms: buds bursting in spring, leaves falling in autumn, animals migrating, etc. This is part of the adaptations that organisms have: they have physiological mechanisms that allow them to do the right things at the right times.
Phenology is not only an international science but an interdisciplinary one. Some of the conference participants study satellite data, which show “greening-up” occurring earlier each year, while others study organisms directly. The interdisciplinary nature of the subject is also what has made this a remarkable conference. We also heard from scientists who specialize in citizen science: they coordinate the efforts of ordinary citizens to collect seasonal data about plants and animals, and put these data into an organized database (see the USA National Phenology Network). We heard from educators who involve the public in phenology awareness.
I gave a presentation in which I documented that the Oklahoma trees I have been watching for the last seven years are, in most cases, opening their buds one to two days earlier each spring, which demonstrates a remarkable rate of global warming. The one exception is silver maples, which (in my sample) all died in the 2011 heat wave. This rate cannot continue; if winters become too warm, the buds will actually open later, not earlier, because cold weather is required to break down their inhibitors (inhibitors are sort of like hibernation hormones).
A couple of years ago, Senator Jim Inhofe from my state of Oklahoma issued a list of climate scientists who should be investigated by the Department of Justice for possible criminal activity because they study global warming at taxpayer expense. Since global warming cannot be happening, Inhofe reasons, these scientists must be making stuff up. One of the scientists on Inhofe’s list is Thomas Karl, our keynote speaker, who did not know he was on the list until I told him. Way to go, Oklahoma. But I think all of us who study phenology should also be on the list. (Technically, I would not be on the list, because I have never received funding for my phenology studies.) I began my talk, “Dear fellow criminals…” That got their attention.
I met two scientists (Steven Running and Kirsten DeBuers) who fully accept global warming, but who wrote a paper that indicated that some trees (up in the mountains) would grow more under warmer temperatures. A global-warming-denial website put them on the list of 3000 “scientists who deny global warming.” So don’t believe these lists, folks! Many of the scientists on these lists were put there falsely!
I also met the woman who blogs about global warming for Huffington Post. You can follow her on Twitter at @climategeek.
What does this topic have to do with evolution, the usual topic of this blog? In the past, normal ecological and evolutionary processes allowed organisms to respond to global climate changes because these changes occurred slowly. Organisms could, over the course of thousands of years, migrate: birds could fly, mammals could run, and seeds could be carried by animals or wind. Over the course of millions of years, organisms could evolve in response to climate changes, such as the spread of grasslands about thirty million years ago. But global climate changes, as great as almost any of those, are occurring today over the course of decades and centuries, too fast for either migration or evolution to adjust. In addition, today, there are roads, cities, and farms in the way. If the ocean rises you can’t just move inland—somebody else already owns the land there. Phenology, therefore, is an important field of study. It shows us that the current rapid rate of global warming is causing remarkable changes in the seasonal activities of organisms. These changes serve as a warning to us about what is going to happen, imminently, in our future.
Back in the days of Gilbert White, phenology was a pleasantly peaceful science. White wrote about the arrival and departure of birds, the opening of buds, and the emergence from hibernation of his female turtle Timothy. Phenology did not rock the world the way evolution did. This is no longer true. Scientists all over the world are documenting that plants and animals are responding to global warming. Ordinary people cannot see carbon dioxide. But they can see that buds that used to always open in April are now opening in March, and doing so nearly every year. They are telling us that global warming is occurring, however much Senator Inhofe insists that it is not.