Signs of the Seasons Field Guide: Introduction

Signs of the Seasons (SOS) is an environmental monitoring and education program for New England citizens of all ages. Participants contribute to scientists’ understanding of the local effects of climate change by observing and recording phenology, the seasonal changes of common plants and animals, in their own backyards and communities. The University of Maine Cooperative Extension and Maine Sea Grant developed the program in 2010, and co-coordinate the program’s volunteer services, research collaborations, and public outreach. In 2012, University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension and New Hampshire Sea Grant joined the effort, extending the program to volunteers and research partners in New Hampshire. SOS is a Partner Program of the USA National Phenology Network, and works closely with many other research and outreach partners, including the National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Maine Audubon, Schoodic Education and Research Center, Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, and faculty at the University of Maine, Maine Maritime Academy, and the University of New Hampshire.

What is phenology?

Phenology is the study of recurring seasonal life stages (phenophases) of plants and animals. Common phenophases include bird, fish, mammal and butterfly migrations and reproduction; insect emergence and metamorphosis; and plant leafing, blooming, fruiting, and senescence.

Why is phenology important?

Many organisms, including humans, depend not just on seasonal changes, but the specific timing of these changes. For example, when songbirds migrate north in the spring, they time their arrival to coincide with the availability of food, mates, and appropriate habitat. Farmers, fishermen, and gardeners also rely on the predictability of plant and animal phenology to support their livelihoods and produce the food that humans and other animals eat.

How does monitoring phenology help us understand climate change?

Climate scientists have found that changes in the timing of plant and animal phenology is one of the most sensitive indicators of the local effects of global climate change.

  • By matching historical and more recent observations, climate scientists have found that changes in phenology are linked to changes in our Earth’s climate.

Example: By comparing current records with those made by Henry David Thoreau in the 1850s, scientists have found that plants such as the high bush blueberry are flowering as many as three weeks earlier in response to warming in Concord, MA.

  • Plant and animal species are responding to climate change in a variety of ways — the timing of some species’ life cycles have changed dramatically, while others have remained fairly constant. Monitoring helps us identify which species are capable of adapting to our changing climate, and which ones may be in trouble.
  • Information collected through programs like SOS will help scientists, as well as farmers, gardeners, fishermen, resource managers, and others, understand how the species they rely on are changing, predict changes they might face in the future, and help all species, including humans, prepare for the changing climate and the associated consequences.

Currently, we don’t have enough data about how plant and animal species in New England are changing, but your participation in this project will help fill that gap.