Phenology is one of the most sensitive biological responses to climate change, and recent changes in phenology have the potential to shake up ecosystems. In some cases, it appears they already are. Thus, for ecological reasons it is critical that we improve our understanding of species’ phenologies and how these phenologies are responding to recent, rapid climate change. Phenological events like flowering and bird migrations are easy to observe, culturally important, and, at a fundamental level, naturally inspire human curiosity— thus providing an excellent opportunity to engage citizen scientists. The USA National Phenology Network has recently initiated a national effort to encourage people at different levels of expertise—from backyard naturalists to professional scientists—to observe phenological events and contribute to a national database that will be used to greatly improve our understanding of spatio-temporal variation in phenology and associated phenological responses to climate change.
Traditional phenological observation protocols identify specific dates at which individual phenological events are observed. The scientific usefulness of long-term phenological observations could be improved with a more carefully structured protocol. At the USA-NPN we have developed a new method that directs observers to record each day that they observe an individual plant, and to assess and report the state of specific life stages (or phenophases) as occurring or not occurring on that plant for each observation date. Evaluation is phrased in terms of simple, easy-to-understand, questions (e.g. “Do you see open flowers?”), which makes it very appropriate for a citizen science audience. From this method, a rich dataset of phenological metrics can be extracted, including the duration of a phenophase (e.g. "open flowers"), the beginning and end points of a phenophase (e.g. traditional phenological events such as "first flower" and "last flower"), multiple distinct occurrences of phenophases within a single growing season (e.g multiple flowering events, common in drought-prone regions), as well as quantification of sampling frequency and observational uncertainties. These features greatly enhance the utility of the resulting data for statistical analyses addressing questions such as how phenological events vary in time and space, and in response to global change. This new protocol is an important step forward, and its widespread adoption will increase the scientific value of data collected by citizen scientists.