Climate change, first-hand

Suhel Quader and Uttara Mendiratta

The natural world is changing in many ways. Habitats fragment and disappear, humans hunt species to rarity and then extinction, plants and animals brought from different parts of the globe invade new habitats and endanger native species; and as if that were not enough, the changing climate poses a further (some would say the greatest) challenge to the persistence of biodiversity.

RosyStarling The warming of the earth’s atmosphere is causing ice caps to recede and sea levels to rise. For the living world, warming sometimes means that species have to move to new areas that suit them better. For species in temperate regions, this means shifting their distribution away from the equator, towards the poles. For those that live on mountains, it means moving upwards to higher altitudes. We know that these responses are already happening, and we fear for species that live near the poles and on mountain-tops, for they cannot move any further.

These patterns are reminders of the importance of understanding the causes and consequences of climate change; and of devising effective mitigation. But how can we engage children in schools in understanding this process when our examples are anecdotal, or come from distant and exotic lands?

One possibility is to engage students in the collection of primary information that can be used to assess the responses of the natural world to climate change. The particular response we focus on is the timing of seasonal events of organisms – technically called phenology. Seasonality is ubiquitous in the natural world: plants flower and fruit at particular times of the year; birds migrate in particular months; seasonal rains bring seasonal irruptions of termites, beetles and other insects. Virtually all living things time their reproduction according to a seasonal clock.

Many of these seasonal events are driven by the external environment. Day-length, temperature and rainfall show clear seasonal changes and are the key factors influencing phenology. Research shows that temperature increases over the past few decades has caused changes in phenology in Europe and America. In the Spring, plants are progressively flowering earlier, birds are returning from tropical climes earlier and insects are emerging sooner than before.

What about countries, like India, that lie in the tropics and subtropics? Surprisingly, there is very little information about the phenology of Indian plants or animals, and how it might be changing.

Citizen Science
This lack of information points to the need for monitoring phenology in India; and what better way to do this than to involve the broader citizenry in the effort? Citizen Science has been shown to be a useful and effective way of gathering ecological information. In some countries, observing nature and its changes is almost a tradition. In such countries, people from across all walks of life and of all ages systematically record data, which are then pooled together. This collated information is a major source of data on the status and changes in the natural world.

The scientific value of involving citizens in collecting information on the natural world is clear; but how do participants benefit? Feedback from participants suggests that there are various positive outcomes of taking part in such projects. Being outdoors and watching nature is fun; and participants often report that they become more attentive to their surroundings. This often naturally leads to a greater involvement and sense of “ownership” of the natural world. After all, it isn’t just the environment, it is my environment. In addition, some Citizen Science projects involve a degree of training for participants, and this then is a way to learn more about the trees, birds or insects around them. In some countries, citizens are so keen on such projects that they pay substantial amounts of money to be able to participate.

There is every reason for school children also to get involved in these kinds of participatory projects. Citizen Science projects that involve children can generate valuable information on the natural world, can sensitize children to environmental issues without being preachy, and can potentially catalyze learning in specific and general ways, as described below. Some examples from other countries of Citizen Science projects that focus on children’s participation are Nature Detectives in the UK and Project BudBurst, in the USA (see below).

Relevant Websites

Citizen Science in India is relatively unexplored. Here, we describe some efforts that we have been involved in to fill this gap. The Citizen Science Programme at the National Centre for Biological Sciences designs and runs participatory projects in which individuals from all over India volunteer to collect information about the natural world.

In MigrantWatch (which is run in collaboration with Indian birds journal), volunteers note the dates of arrival and departure of migratory birds and contribute this information to an online database. As of March 2010, MigrantWatch has over 1,000 participants from across India, and the database holds over 6,000 separate dates for more than 200 migratory species from some 1,000 distinct locations around the country. Although many MigrantWatchers are seasoned birdwatchers, volunteers who are just beginning to watch birds are also welcome to participate. An online guide to common migrant birds helps participants identify the birds they see.

Cassia-fistula In the three years that MigrantWatch has been running, participants have generated baseline information on the timing of arrival and departure of migratory birds to and from India. This information will be used to assess whether migration phenology is changing over the years. All the information contributed to MigrantWatch is openly accessible through the website.

SeasonWatch is a new citizen science project that monitors tree phenology across India. SeasonWatch is run with support from Wipro’s Applying Thought in Schools programme. Like with MigrantWatch, information collected through this network will contribute to an understanding of the effects of climate change on the natural world. Anyone is welcome to sign up and participate. A participant needs to simply find one or more individual trees that she or he would like to monitor, record some basic information about the tree (e.g., its location, name of species, etc); and then check the tree regularly to look for leaves, flower and fruits. This information is then entered into the participant’s personal online account with SeasonWatch, where he or she can also look at all the other information that has been collected from around the country.

With the information collected, we hope to be able to address questions like: Does the flowering time of neem vary across the country? Is fruiting of tamarind different in different parts of the country depending on rainfall in the previous year? Is year-to-year variation in flowering and fruiting time of mango related to winter temperatures?

SeasonWatch hopes to attract participants from all walks of life. Trees are all around us, and deserve more of our attention. Anyone with an interest in trees is welcome to join us in watching them more carefully. In fact, SeasonWatch has a particular emphasis on participation by schools and school children.

SeasonWatch in schools
True-asoka The core activity of SeasonWatch is very simple and requires that the students identify a few very common trees (like tamarind, neem, peepal, gulmohar, etc. – see below) in and around the school campus and monitor these trees on a weekly basis for appearance of fresh leaves, flowers and fruits using a simple format. An online tree guide helps identify trees whose identity students may be unsure of.

SeasonWatch covers about 100 species of plants, of which we particularly emphasize the 15 common and widespread species listed here
Babool – Acacia nilotica
Sirish – Albizia lebbeck
Devil’s tree – Alstonia scholaris
Neem – Azadirachta indica
Purple bauhinia – Bauhinia purpurea
Red Silk Cotton – Bombax ceiba
Flame-of-the-forest – Butea monosperma
Gulmohur – Delonix regia
Amaltash – Cassia fistula
Indian coral tree – Erythrina indica
Banyan – Ficus bengalensis
Tamarind – Tamarindus indica
Pongam – Pongamia pinnata
Jamun – Syzygium cumini
Giant Crape-myrtle – Lagerstroemia speciosa

Tracking phenology in a systematic manner allows students to contribute meaningful scientific data rather than letting them only be passive observers. But could there be additional learning opportunities as well? We believe that participatory projects like SeasonWatch can provide schools with opportunities for using these projects to enhance learning in a variety of ways.

As part of SeasonWatch, we are developing activity workbooks for school children. These workbooks will focus on the basic theme of the project, but crucially, will also draw connections with related aspects of the curriculum. For example, students will monitor tree phenology and simultaneously learn about the causes and consequences of climate change; observe insects visiting flowers and also learn about pollination; identify trees and also learn about plant structure and function. There are also connections, and therefore learning opportunities, with seemingly more distant parts of the curriculum. For instance, the problem of measuring the height of a tree makes an excellent hands-on lesson in trigonometry. Setting up and monitoring a simple weather station at the school, with a basic maximum-minimum thermometer and a rain gauge could be an additional activity, stimulating reading and learning about meteorology.

Bauhinia-purpurea With the information compiled in the SeasonWatch database, students also have the opportunity to summarize, analyze and visualize the data that they have helped to collect. Here, SeasonWatch will provide guides to using simple statistical and visualization procedure; and we plan to provide online tools for students to use these procedures.

All that we have described above can happen only with the active involvement of teachers, who need to guide and motivate school children in their participation. Teachers are the crucial point of contact between the project and the students. We are happy to help in whatever way we can to facilitate the scientific and educational goals of SeasonWatch.

Dr. Suhel Quader and Uttara Mendiratta are with the Citizen Science Programme of the National Centre for Biological Sciences (Tata Institute of Fundamental Research), Bangalore. They can be reached at [email protected].

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