Fingerprints of change: Abisko plants and phenology

 Nuoja taken from the Abisko Scientific Research Station. Top: taken on 21 February 1925 by Carl G. Alm; Bottom: taken on 21 February 2017 by Oliver Wright

Nuoja taken from the Abisko Scientific Research Station. Top: taken on 21 February 1925 by Carl G. Alm; Bottom: taken on 21 February 2017 by Oliver Wright

Project Description

A major challenge for our time is to understand and predict effects of climate and environmental change on ecosystems and the services they provide to humanity. A larger and possibly more important challenge is to establish the significance of these processes to motivate citizens to change behaviours and to support policy and decision makers in developing adaptation, mitigation and management solutions. One recognized way to find solutions to this challenge is to engage the public directly in our science through ‘citizen science’.

Citizen science transcends regular communication initiatives. In citizen science, participants are actively engaged in the research process that the scientists communicate. This engagement by citizens in the scientific process leads to a deeper understanding of the causes and consequences of climate and environmental change beyond what they would gain via the typical diffusion of scientific knowledge. In this project, we collaborate with the naturum Abisko to engage citizens and visitors of the Swedish mountains to become ‘citizen scientists’.

Our citizen science project focuses on the much beloved signs of seasonal change – the emergence of leaves in the spring, start of flowering, when berries are ripe for picking, and autumn leaf colours. Researchers refer to these seasonal changes as plant phenology or the study of nature’s “calendar”. Thanks to the strong links between plants, weather and climate, phenology represents one of the most common biological indicators of climate change showing trends, with earlier spring flowering and longer growing season. These indicators allow researchers to analyse regional differences in the effects of climate change.

  Pedicularis hirsuta

Pedicularis hirsuta

However, collecting phenology data on a sufficient geographic scale and over many years is a fundamental obstacle. Today, historical and volunteer data in the form of citizen science have become crucial sources for scientists in the 21st century, including plant phenology data. We have established such a citizen scientist opportunity for the thousands of annual visitors to the Abisko and the Sweidsh mountains.

The naturum Abisko provides a variety of visitor and education programs, including botanical tours. Here we collaborate with them to integrate phenology monitoring into their botanical tours using the citizen science app iNaturalist and Fjällkalendern. These efforts meets our two objectives, of actively engaging citizens to observe the indicators of climate and environmental change that they might otherwise fail to notice, while gathering phenology data for fundamental research.


Background

Our project is inspired by the works of a few key botanists who helped put Abisko on the map, Thore C. E. Fries, G. E. Du Rietz, and Gustav Sandberg. They were all botanists at the Abisko Scientific Research Station. Beginning in 1914 we have extensive records of both the distribution and phenology of the plants in this region from repeated surveys, inventories and research projects.

The research station was established in Abisko in 1913 and immediately began collecting a globally unique long-term weather (climate) series for the Arctic. In 1913 the mean annual temperature in Abisko was below 0 C, today it is above 0 C. This means that at the beginning of the temperature record Abisko had an "arctic" climate and today it has a "boreal" climate.

 Thore C E Fries

Thore C E Fries

Temp anomaly Abisko.jpg

Further, global warming as largely impacted this region during the autumn, winter and spring. Today the growing season is about four weeks longer than when the temperature records began (1913).

Growing Season.jpg

Our project focuses on understanding how plants have responded to this century of change. We have excellent distribution and phenology data for almost 200 species of plants beginning in 1914.

So how do plants respond to a changing climate? We have four predictions:

  1. plants can change their distribution, typically by moving north or higher up in the mountains if it gets warmer and the reverse if it gets cooler.
  2. plants can change the timing or duration of their phenology, that is when leaves, flowers, fruit, seeds, or leaf colour change (autumn), occurs.
  3. they can do both.
  4. they can persist without successfully reproducing or competing with the eventual outcome of local extinction.

Methods

Our project relies on two citizen science apps created for both Android and iOS smart phones. For people familiar with the plants found generally in the Swedish Mountains we have created an app called 'Fjällkalendern'. Here we have identified 40 species of plants that we expect most amateur botanists familiar with the flora of the Swedish mountains can identify. Further these 40 species are found quite broadly from the north to the south of the Swedish mountains.

For people who do not have the taxonomic skills to identify common plants, but can take pictures with their smart phone or those already familiar with the app, we use 'iNaturalist'. All observations must contain one or more photos that allow our network of plant experts accurately identify the species. In addition, project staff annotate the phenological state of each observation, typically leaf development, flowering, fruiting and senescence.

Target Species List

Achillea millefolium
Andromeda polifolia
Antennaria alpina
Arctous alpina
Avenella flexuosa
Bartsia alpina
Betula nana ssp. nana
Betula pubescens ssp. pubescens
Bistorta vivipara
Cassiope tetragona
Chamaenerion angustifolium
Dryas octopetala
Empetrum nigrum ssp. hermaphroditum
Geranium sylvaticum
Geum rivale
Gnaphalium norvegicum
Myosotis decumbens
Phyllodoce caerulea
Pinguicula alpina
Pinguicula vulgaris

Potentilla crantzii
Ranunculus nivalis
Rhododendron lapponicum
Rubus arcticus
Rubus chamaemorus
Salix herbacea
Salix reticulata
Saussurea alpina
Saxifraga oppositifolia
Silene acaulis
Silene dioica
Solidago virgaurea ssp. alpestris
Thalictrum alpinum
Tofieldia pusilla
Trientalis europaea
Trollius europaeus
Vaccinium myrtillus
Vaccinium uliginosum ssp. uliginosum
Vaccinium vitis-ideae
Viola biflora

  Phyllodoce caerulea

Phyllodoce caerulea

We have created photographic guides to our 40 target species in English, Swedish, and German.


Learn more about our citizen science Project at

 

Project Partners

naturum Abisko
STF Abisko Mountain Station
Abisko Scientific Research Station
Naturens kalender (The Swedish National Phenology Network)

Funders

Formas
Gunnar and Ruth Björkman's fund for botanical research in Norrland