by Anna Duhon

just_salamanderIn 2015, Conrad Vispo of Hawthorne Valley’s Farmscape Ecology Program (FEP) was browsing through old books when he discovered something fascinating: a treasure trove of information on the timing of natural and agricultural events in the 1800s in New York.

After three years of tracking down, compiling, digitizing and standardizing close to 13,000 records of plant, animal and agricultural events observed throughout New York State from 1826 to 1872, this information is now available through an online historical browser. It is also the cornerstone of a new high school curriculum through our Progress of the Seasons Project and is in the process of being analyzed to help understand the effects of climate change on plant communities in New York State in collaboration with Community Greenways Collaborative.

When people first began recording these data in 1826, it was as part of a pioneering vision, put forth by a prominent member of the New York State Board of Regents, Simeon De Witt, to advance the understanding and prediction of weather and climatic variation through the creation of a state-wide meteorological network linking the academies (or high schools) supervised by the New York State Regents.  Effectively, a 19th century example of citizen science at work, and an idea that directly paved the way for the National Weather Service.

Today we have the benefit of national weather prediction services at our fingertips – yet the timing of plant and animal activities, a study known as phenology, is proving more important than ever.  In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change wrote “Phenology…is perhaps the simplest process in which to track changes in the ecology of species in response to climate change.”

The seasonal observations of plant and animal events, first carried out in the 1800s, are again being taken up in New York, this time by a new wave of citizen scientists through the New York Phenology Project (NYPP), part of the Community Greenways Collaborative and a member of the National Phenology Network.  Meanwhile, having over 40 years of historic phenology data is proving an invaluable resource for understanding current impacts of climate change and thinking about the future.

This past spring we piloted a Progress of the Seasons curriculum in which local students gathered modern observations of plant and animal phenology – the flowering of fruit trees, for example – and used the historical browser to compare the timing of spring now versus in the mid-1800s.  For nearly every species they explored, the range of dates for modern observations were earlier, sometimes strikingly so.

A comprehensive historic/modern data comparison using this historic dataset and the modern data collected by observers in the New York Phenology Project, including at phenology trails right here at Hawthorne Valley Farm, is currently being carried out by researcher and New York Phenology Project founder Kerissa Battle in partnership with the Farmscape Ecology Program.  Stay tuned for the announcement of a forthcoming publication of this work.

Finally, we invite you to explore the historic browser and see what changes you notice in the timing and nature of observations then and now.  For more information about this project, visit our Progress of the Seasons page or contact Anna Duhon at the Farmscape Ecology Program.

We are very grateful for the key support for this project provided by Dale McDonald as well as funding from the Community Greenways Collaborative that has made this work possible.