An initiative of Earthwatch Institute

An Interview with ClimateWatch scientists Dr Lynda Chambers and Dr Marie Keatley

Dr Lynda Chambers and Dr Marie Keatley took some time to speak with ClimateWatch about the initiative, its importance, and how citizen scientists are able to help with the research on climate change impact.

Dr Lynda Chambers, Senior Scientist at the Bureau of Meteorology has been involved with ClimateWatch since its beginnings. As part of the Science and Technical Advisory Panels, Dr Chambers helps guide the development of the ClimateWatch database, the selection of indicator species and provides general scientific advice and feedback.

Dr Marie Keatley, Honorary Adjunct Senior Fellow at The University of Melbourne is a climate change scientist who has also been involved with ClimateWatch from the start. She serves on the Science Advisory Panel.

What species should I monitor?
All of the ClimateWatch species are important to monitor. According to Dr Chambers, having a good mix of flowers, insects, and birds is particularly favourable. Dr Chambers is interested in the interactions between animals, plants, insects and ecosystems.

When monitoring species, people should also keep an eye out for any changes in the status quo. For example, whether there are new species in an area or changes to when species occur, are important observations to record. Dr Chambers points out that the arrival times of birds such as cuckoos to the east coast has changed over time and this is thought to be due to the changing climate.

“People should also look for differences in species interactions such as whether a bird is preying on a different insect than usual or if an insect is feeding on a different plant,” says Dr Chambers. “By monitoring week to week, we can get a good idea of what are standard processes and what is unusual,” she says.

Dr Lynda Chambers

Why should I monitor international species?
Not only is it important to record native species but also international ones. Dr Keatley indicates that recording changes in species that are not native to Australia will allow scientists to compare introduced species living in Australia with those in their native homeland. For example, the London Plane Tree occurs widely in the Northern Hemisphere (e.g. New York, Paris, Madrid, Mannheim, Shanghai, Chicago, and London) and scientists want to be able to make a comparison between the timing of phenological events in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres.

Is citizen science a new phenomenon?
“Citizen science in Australia is not a new concept; there has been strong involvement since the early 1900s. Volunteer observers from the Bureau of Meteorology who have recorded temperature and rainfall are great examples of this,” says Dr Keatley. In fact, the Bureau of Meteorology states that “The rainfall records at some sites stretch back to the mid-1800s - a history that has sometimes been recorded by five generations of the same family and pre-dates official rainfall records in Sydney, Melbourne and Hobart.”

As new technology is more accessible and available to the mass population, ClimateWatch and other citizen science programs have harnessed the power of the web for data collection on a national and international scale.

Are there already changes occurring?
Compared to Northern Hemisphere countries, Australia has conducted relatively few phenological studies, making it difficult to detect long-term changes in our native plants and animals. Dr Keatley suspects that because the changes between seasons in many parts of Australia are less dramatic than the Northern Hemisphere, there are less early records of plant and animal stages like the first flowering or first leafing of plants. Dr Keatley explains that this is why programs like ClimateWatch are so important because if we had not started recording and continue to record, we will find ourselves with little information in the future.

The evidence from the few studies that have been conducted in Australia suggests Australian plants and animals are just as likely to be affected by climate change. Dr Keatley explains that long-term community observations are crucial to the development of future data sets, like those of Laura Levens, a long time recorder that has been observing up to 120 species since the 1983 Victorian bushfires. Laura noticed changes throughout her observations. "This type of information has helped contribute to the work of my colleagues and in establishing that some plants are flowering earlier while others are appearing later and some remain unchanged.” says Dr Keatley.

Dr Keatley not only observes species across Australia but in her own backyard as well. “I have recorded wood-ducks every year for 14 years and noticed that they are appearing two weeks earlier than usual!” she says. “Once you have been recording for a while you will want to keep an eye out for the species you are recording.”

“The more aware you are of your surroundings, the more connected you are to the rhythm of the ecosystem,” says Dr Keatley. “Since humans depend on the ecosystem, having an understanding of the impact of climate change is important.”

Dr Marie Keatley in the field

How were the ClimateWatch species chosen?
As an advisor to ClimateWatch species selection, Dr Chambers lists several important criteria on how these species are selected.

1) Must be safe to observe
2) Have a seasonal behaviour e.g. flower bloom, migration.
3) Easy to identify and distinguish

ClimateWatch species were selected in consultation with museums, herbaria/botanic gardens and academic experts.

Current models that use recent and historical data from Climatewatch species will enable us to predict changes in the distribution and occurrence of our plants, animals and ecosystems which are likely to occur with changes in climate. These predictions, in combination with current knowledge, will help plan for the preservation of species. That’s why we’re encouraging all Australians to record their observations on the ClimateWatch website, so we can better understand, and plan for, how the changing climate will effect our plants and animals.