What did you notice? Did you write it down?

At the Leopold Shack in Baraboo, WS
At the Leopold Shack in Baraboo, WS

For more than a decade my peers and I have pondered why response to changes in the natural world go unheeded by the public. We pondered that “biblical floods and storms” are soon forgotten and that no “mountains moved” in our free, democratic society.

I was reminded of a key truth last month by the work of two scientists, Drs. Rick Brusca and Wendy Moore (The University of Arizona, Tucson). In a recently published study they showed that the lower and upper ranges of montane plants (such as coniferous trees) compared to a similar study in the 1960’s showed a dramatic move of plant ranges “up the mountain” – correlated with a decrease in rainfall and increase in average temperatures over the 6 decade interval. (Brusca et al. 2013 Catalinas)

Unless people travelling up Mt. Lemmon in the Catalina Mountain range had been paying attention and making notes, they had no idea that plants were no longer occurring in lower elevations but were found higher and higher up the mountain over just one lifetime. Dr. Moore produced a second study that recorded populations of arthropods (spiders, beetles, bugs, etc.) in the Sky Islands, the same habitat of the montane plant study. She created a baseline measurement similar to the scientist in the 1960s but for arthropods. Without the latter, no comparison could be made in the future to determine change over time.

Why is it important?

Without the long-term “sampling” or observations, humans don’t easily note changes that happen slowly over time. Take some of humankind’s early nature writers who have contributed vital observations that inform us today: Henry David Thoreau recorded in detail the changing of seasons, plants communities, and weather at Walden Pond in the nineteenth century.

For several years, Richard Primack has been prowling Henry David Thoreau’s old haunts in Concord, Mass., chronicling spring’s curtain-raiser, the arrival of leaves and buds. Thoreau carefully recorded the same details a century and a half ago. Primack, a College of Arts & Sciences biology professor, who pioneered the study of the effects of climate change on New England, has used Thoreau’s records to confirm that leaf-out arrives earlier today than it did then—a barometer of global warming. (He also checked photographs of leaf-out going back to the 1800s; those photos’ dates also indicate that spring came later in horse-and-buggy days.) ~ BU Today, Rich Barlow

Another great observer was Aldo Leopold whose records of temperature, blooming, birds, and other indicators are still used as a baseline today in the Wisconsin Sand County where he meticulously made his measurements with a cup of coffee at dawn. Today his daughter keeps track of over 700 indicators (blooming, birds, etc.) over each year cycle.


You do not need to be a scientist as Thoreau proved. You just have to pay attention, write it down, and be regular about it. The record may prove invaluable but in the mean time you will have a glorious time among birds chirping, flowers opening, and the heavens greeting you with a new day dawning!

How to Keep Records

Useful Methods for Phenological Study from Ecology Explorers