British Columbia

Climate change's future can be mapped with nature's clock expert says

Ever wonder what the migrating of geese has in common with the growing of certain plants? Phenology (not to be confused with phrenology) holds the key to understanding nature, according to one expert.

Lesser known study of phenology may have major impact on understanding climate change

It's well known that geese fly south during winter, but the study of phenology seeks to understand how climate change will affect these natural phenomena. (Getty Images/Flickr RF)

It may not be among the most well known types of study, but according to outdoor columnist Frank Ritcey, phenology (not to be confused with phrenology) is among the most important.

"The short version is that phenology is the study of the timing of events in natural world," Ritcey told North by Northwest's Sheryl MacKay, careful to point out the difference between the similarly named phrenology.

More specifically, he says it's a critical study for naturalists and to those concerned with climate change.

"There are some events in nature that are tied to the calendar and there are some events that are more specifically tied to the weather and local events.

Events like the timing of breeding for animals with long gestation periods and the added requirement that their offspring be born at an optimal time relative to a food source, results in the event being tied to our solar calendar."

For example, he explains that the migration of geese southward is tied to local events like water bodies freezing over.

Crucial way to indicate climate change effects

While Ritcey admits that thanks to technology, phenology is no longer a required skill by hunters and nomads as it once as, it is a valuable tool in understanding the changing climate of the planet.

"A lot of naturalists have been noticing that with the change in climate, the timing of many events in nature are being thrown out of whack."

He once again uses the example of migrating geese, but this time points to how a warmer climate may affect when the birds choose to move south and the ramifications of that decision.

"What happens when the grass the geese they feed on, starts to grow in the spring like it normally does, but now, because the geese are already there, they eat the grass before it can reach maturity? Soon all of the grass is gone, and the geese either starve, start to eat new plants, or move into areas where they normally wouldn't be found." 

Ritcey says it's examples like that which are critical for naturalists to understand the potential changes the planet may be facing in the no so distant future.

"Knowing about the timing of events in nature and seeing what climate change is doing to that timing will help us understand what the long term consequences of our actions could be."

To hear more, click the audio labelled: Phenology on climate change.


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