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Citizen Science

At first, the questions trickled in – Does a sustained dip in temperature on a mid-winter day mean “global warming” is a myth? Are recent severe hurricanes a sign of global systems in flux? Has the season for maple sugaring crept closer to February?

A true torrent of concern about observable indications of global shifts affecting our local ecosystems came early in 2009, when flocks of robins were spotted by Nordic skiers and winter hikers who were shocked at seeing many of the crimson-bellied birds among deep snowdrifts – surely a sign of climate change! The observations were absolutely accurate, but the reason the robins overwintered in northern New England that year had to do with access to exceptionally abundant fruit, part of a cycle that is unrelated to larger climate questions.

These discussions got us thinking at the Fairbanks Museum & Planetarium, especially as Eye on the Sky listeners started sending in signs of spring. How would we describe the possibly subtle effects and not-so-subtle impacts of global climate change in our region? What could people see or hear that would help us all understand how our regional ecosystems might change? Our conversations became truly animated when we focused on observing the migratory habits of specific birds, populations of butterflies, health and habitats of wildflowers, and, of course, weather patterns.

A team of naturalists and educators in the Museum established tools and protocols to involve a wide group of people in a sustained commitment to observing change. The Fairbanks Community of Observers, launched in 2011, grew out of this inspiration.

The Community of Observers is designed to engage farmers and families, schools and senior living communities, novices and naturalists – anyone who is curious about tracking changes in the fields, forests and wetlands that define Vermont and northern New Hampshire. This growing community will become a hub for information and ideas about how our landscape is changing, providing data that can inform deeper discussions about the values and traditions we cherish.

For weather watchers, understanding cloud formations and other phenomena hone observation skills and help establish a deeper understanding of the forces at play in our seasonal cycles. Since clouds can be observed any time, any place, take note of the accompanying weather conditions – heavy winds or sudden change in temperature might relate to what is happening in the sky. Observing weather also leads to noticing the conditions that might invite the Mourning Cloak butterfly to emerge in early spring or fresh dandelion blooms on a warm November day. Our aim is to provide a forum for these observations – anecdotal as well as quantitative – and interpret them through maps and discussion.

More precise data measuring daily temperature and precipitation informs our understanding of long-term trends collected over several years. The Museum’s meteorologists have recently digitized weather records dating back to 1894, when the Museum first became a National Weather Bureau observation station. These records represent the longest continuous weather data collection at a single site in Vermont, and the trends they reveal offer clues to the nature of change in region. Weather observers will contribute directly to ongoing studies of regional weather and climate.

There are many national citizen science programs that are contributing in significant ways to our understanding of how natural communities of plants and animals are changing.

Here are just a few:

Why pay attention to these species and weather events?

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