We spoke with Mark D. Schwartz, a pioneering researcher in Phenology, about his life’s work and how it should inform society. Mark wrote his PhD dissertation on Phenology (University of Kansas, 1985) and has since written over eighty peer-reviewed research papers, as well as editing a seminal book, Phenology: An Integrative Environmental Science. Mark serves as Chair of the Geography department at UW-Milwaukee, President of the International Society of Biometeorology, and co-founder of the USA National Phenology Network (usanpn.org).

Mark has a lot on his mind. I think he has more on his mind than he realized before our conversation. What started with him listing some of the areas of Wisconsin in which he is conducting data collection eventually turned into a discourse on how, by failing to witness the seasonal rhythms of the climate we live in, and failing to appreciate the connectedness of ourselves with the other living things in the environment, we are missing out on a substantial part of the human experience. That part between data collection and philosophy – therein lies Phenology.

Phenology is the study of plant and animal life cycles and their relationship with climate and the weather. Imagine a long distance migratory bird, taking clues from the deep South that it is time to head North. When the bird arrives, it is counting on the availability of insects for food. However, if the growing season in the North is not in sync with clues of the South, the trees on which the insects depend may not yet have begun to bloom. The insects may then not be available for the birds when they arrive. Phenology studies all aspects of the effect of climate and weather on plants and animals. The reciprocal is also true; phenology even studies the possibility of plants and animals affecting the climate and weather.  

Mark’s studies concentrate on the relationship of plants with climate and the weather. Mark manually collects data with phenological observations of honeysuckles and lilacs – their budding and blooming – in his own backyard, in the spring. He also utilizes automated data collection techniques from various sites in Wisconsin to determine phenological transition dates in the spring and fall. Furthermore, he even uses satellite data to aid in the visualization of the northern movement of the growing season.  

Mark’s major finding is in line with what the scientific community would expect given the growing literature on climate change: the growing season is creeping forward. Since the mid 1950’s, the growing season has, statistically speaking, moved forward by about a week, or a day per decade. This tracking has real implications for agriculture. Mark – an avid gardener – says it will not simply work to plant your garden earlier. The ground temperatures may not be warm enough even if the air temperatures are.  Moreover, even if the growing season may arrive earlier, statistics suggest that the date of the last frost may not be moving forward with it. The message from Mark is clear: we must ask what can be done to address the issue through public policy.

Mark hopes to one day achieve a full data network on the growing season. For now, he is concentrating his efforts on creating additional models for different sets of plants. The plants Mark is observing are ones that are temperature sensitive. Data collected from these plants are important, but expanding observations to new types of plants will help Mark know the limits of his current observations and make his assessments more robust.

Despite indicating some exasperation with the nearsightedness of policy makers, both on the environment and on education, Mark is a very grounded man. He swears by the ‘pleasantness’ of being in tune with the seasons. My discussions with him on the potential for automated observations with “the internet of things” lead me to think he would be happy to have some things automated, but it would be even better if people stayed involved, conducted their own observations on seasonal changes, and perhaps enriched their lives with appreciation for the connectedness of the whole.  I think he believes that would also help with people’s nearsighted resistance to societal change.

Mark will be among the panelists at the June 11th MASA Kickoff event at Anodyne Coffee Roasting Co. in Walker’s Point, Milwaukee where a panel of experts will be discussing how climate change impacts science education, public health and sustainability. We hope to see you there!
Written by Casey S. Schroeder for the Milwaukee Area Science Advocates

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