An initiative of Earthwatch Institute

ClimateWatch on the radio

6 August 2014

ClimateWatch was recently featured on ABC Radio's Science Show with Robyn Williams. If you missed it, you can listen here, or read the transcript below.

Robyn Williams: Back in the middle of May we had a whole Science Show on citizen science, a revolution happening around the world, enlisting you to help the professionals in any number of fields. Here's another example, based in Melbourne.

Linden Ashcroft: Hi, my name is Dr Linden Ashcroft and I'm the program manager of ClimateWatch at Earthwatch Australia. You may have noticed the trees in your local area slowly losing their leaves recently as autumn turned to winter. Or perhaps the wattle tree in your backyard started flowering. A pretty sure sign that winter is here.

But how does the timing of this year's natural calendar compare to last year's or the year before that or even further back? Studying the seasonal behaviour of plants, birds, insects and other animals is called phenology. Phenologists explore how climate can cause changes to things like flowering, breeding or migration dates. The impact of temperature and rainfall changes on crop yield and biodiversity means that phenology is playing an increasingly big role in climate research. We don't just need the instrumental weather observations of temperature and rainfall but also the records that plants and animals are supplying to us about how the changes are affecting them.

Common brown butterflies, for example, are appearing 10 days earlier in Melbourne than they were in the 1940s. Migrating birds are arriving in the southern hemisphere about two days earlier each decade than they were in the 1970s, while the date of the first flower in spring has moved by almost one day per year for many species.

While I know it sounds lovely to have flowers earlier in the year, these changes can lead to crucial relationships breaking down within ecosystems. For example, birds often time their breeding to coincide with the peak of their food supply, whether that is bugs or nectar. Bird breeding is occurring earlier than it used to, but insects and flowers are appearing even earlier, and this causes an increasing gap between the chick hatch and the peak food supply. This can cause a drop in chick survival and damage the bird population.

To understand these on-the-ground impacts of warmer temperatures requires regular observations from lots of different locations. As much as I'd like to, I can't be everywhere to record the date of the first Jacaranda flower or the first red-necked stint that returns to Australian shores after their migration to Alaska. For this reason, scientists are turning to you, citizen scientists.

Citizen science is a growing field connecting the public with researchers to answer great scientific questions. In the case of Australian phenology, this means calling on you to record what is happening in the local park, at school, or even in your own backyard. I bet you do notice these things, whether you mean to or not. A lot of people come up to me and say, 'Oh yeah, my Jacaranda has flowered early this year,' or, 'I saw this really weird bird that I've never seen before.' All we're asking you to do for our ClimateWatch program is to take a photo of these things that you notice and submit them for science.

ClimateWatch is Australia's national citizen science phenology program. It was established in 2009 by Earthwatch Australia, with the Bureau of Meteorology and the University of Melbourne. The aim of the program is to improve understanding of the impact of temperature and rainfall changes on Australia's plants and animals. There are over 170 indicator species that ClimateWatch is looking out for, including 45 birds, over 40 different plant species, 30 marine critters, insects, mammals and reptiles. Some species are really easy to spot, like the mighty English oak, while others, such as the endangered swift parrot, are harder to find.

Since 2009, ClimateWatch has recruited over 13,000 people who have submitted more than 60,000 observations. The program is currently being used by nine universities across Australia to teach biology, and there are more than 40 self-guided walking trails set up at botanic gardens, local parks and environmental education centres. Species experts from universities and museums provide support to assess the data quality and the observations then become publicly available through the Atlas of Living Australia which is the national biodiversity database.

The key to a successful monitoring program like ClimateWatch is reliable observers and long-term observations. Similar programs in the US and the UK have been running for decades thanks to long-term support. While ClimateWatch is still in its early stages compared to these international programs, the Australian data are already indicating some changes. Earlier flowering dates have been recorded for several plant species, and tropical species such as the invasive Asian house gecko have been spotted further and further south.

The predicted El Niño conditions for this summer mean that a warm and dry spring is probably likely, bringing with it confused plants and animals. So please, keep a lookout and record what you see. It is free to register and you can record online or through the ClimateWatch smart phone app.

Earthwatch is a not-for-profit organisation and we rely on donations and partnerships to keep our programs running. You can donate to ClimateWatch and find more information at our website,

Robyn Williams: Linden Ashcroft in Melbourne.

Taken from Radio National's The Science Show.