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Volume 28
Number 2
Summer 2011
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Composite phylogeny of 429 flowering plant species from the flora of Concord, Massachusetts, depicting changes in abundance from 1900 to 2007. Parks use phenology to improve management and communicate climate change

By Abraham Miller-Rushing, Angela Evenden, John Gross, Brian Mitchell, and Susan Sachs
Published: 15 Jan 2014 (online)  •  30 Jan 2014 (in print)
Phenology and national parks
Making observations on the ground
Sharing and communicating
Engaging the public
The future
About the authors
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Rapid climate change—such as recent changes in climate that are occurring more rapidly than at any time since the last glacial maximum—presents two particularly formidable challenges for national parks and society in general. First, we must improve our understanding of the effects of climate change and how to manage them. Second, we must communicate the science of climate change in a concrete, noncontroversial (or minimally controversial) way that promotes understanding and action. In the National Park Service (NPS), many efforts are under way to address these two challenges ( Here, we describe one promising approach that addresses both challenges simultaneously: studying climate-driven changes in phenology—the timing of seasonal biological events, such as flowering and migrations.

Phenology has played an important role in the lives of people, plants, and animals through history. Human subsistence has depended on knowing when food plants are available and when game species arrive or depart on migrations. Much of ecological theory and many of our management practices recognized this, but assumed that phenology was relatively stable from one year to the next, in part because climate, which drives the timing of many phenological events, was long thought to be fairly stable, or “stationary” (Milly et al. 2008).

In a period of rapid climate change, though, understanding phenology becomes even more important. Almost every ecological relationship and process—including predator-prey and plant-pollinator interactions, the spread of disease, pest outbreaks, and water and carbon cycling—depends on the timing of phenological events (Forrest and Miller-Rushing 2010). As climatic conditions change, phenology changes, and so do these ecological relationships and processes. These shifts are further complicated because the phenologies of different species change at different rates and in different directions, some occurring earlier, others later (Sherry et al. 2007; Thackeray et al. 2010). In some cases this may lead to mismatches, as has occurred in parts of Europe where pied flycatchers (Ficedula hypoleuca) are now breeding too late relative to when their primary food source, winter moth caterpillars, is available; where this mismatch is most severe, populations of pied flycatchers are declining by up to 90% (Both et al. 2006). Changes in phenology also vary across space, as is evident in the earlier-than-average spring green-up and flowering of most plants in the northern United States, but later in southern regions (Zhang et al. 2007; Von Holle et al. 2010). Right now we are ill-equipped to predict the impacts of phenological changes on species and ecosystems because of a dearth of data describing the phenology of most species and the role of timing in regulating species interactions and ecological processes.

In addition to its role in ecosystem functions, phenology provides one of the most fundamental ways people relate to nature. Phenological events mark the changing of seasons: the emergence of leaves and butterflies and the sounds and activities of birds, frogs, and other animals herald the arrival of spring; fall foliage and crop harvest mark the onset of autumn and winter in much of the country. Because phenology is tightly coupled with climate and is changing wherever climate is changing, it provides a way that people can “see” climate change and its impacts wherever they are.

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This page updated:  8 November 2011

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From the Editor
Information Crossfile
Masthead Information
Special Issue: Climate Change Science in the National Parks
Climate change impacts and carbon in U.S. national parks
Glossary: Climate change–related terms
Pikas in Peril: Multiregional vulnerability assessment of a climate-sensitive sentinel species
Pika monitoring under way in four western parks: The development of a collaborative multipark protocol
Climate change science in Everglades National Park
Sea-level rise: Observations, impacts, and proactive measures in Everglades National Park
Landscape response to climate change and its role in infrastructure protection and management at Mount Rainier National Park
Glacier trends and response to climate in Denali National Park and Preserve
Climate change, management decisions, and the visitor experience: The role of social science research
Conserving pinnipeds in Pacific Ocean parks in response to climate change
The George Melendez Wright Climate Change Fellowship Program: Promoting innovative park science for resource management
Estimating and mitigating the impacts of climate change and air pollution on alpine plant communities in national parks
  Parks use phenology to improve management and communicate climate change
Standards and tools for using phenology in science, management, and education
Hummingbird monitoring in Colorado Plateau parks
Paper birch: Sentinels of climate change in the Niobrara River Valley, Nebraska
Climate change in Great Basin National Park: Lake sediment and sensor-based studies
Long-term change in perennial vegetation along the Colorado River in Grand Canyon National Park (1889–2010)
The distribution and abundance of a nuisance native alga, Didymosphenia geminata, in streams of Glacier National Park
Monitoring direct and indirect climate effects on whitebark pine ecosystems at Crater Lake National Park
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