Think Globally, Monitor Locally: Building Community Anti-Fragility by Tracking Climate Change in Real Time

The current national nightmare needs an antidote or it can cause crippling despair.

A positive, pro-social, cooperative activity that lets ordinary people do important work that addresses a real, important practical need (staying abreast of how nature is changing, thanks to our tireless consumption and polluting) is like a deep drink of cool water after a six-month burning drought. Monitoring the changes we are unleashing won’t slow them down, but building our stores of specific local knowledge could mean the difference between a difficult but survivable time or brutal famine, humanity’s age-old scourge.

Spring Leaf Index Anomaly, May 11, 2017: Source: USA National Phenology Network,

The USA National Phenology Network (USA-NPN) monitors the influence of climate on the phenology of plants, animals, and landscapes.

Image credit: WD Peachey: Source

USA National Phenology Network

What we do: The USA-NPN developed Nature’s Notebook, a project focused on collecting standardized ground observations of phenology by researchers, students and volunteers. We also foster phenology communities of practice, and the development of tools and techniques to support a wide range of decisions made routinely by citizens, managers, scientists, and others, including decisions related to allergies, wildfires, water, and conservation.

Our mission: The USA National Phenology Network serves science and society by promoting broad understanding of plant and animal phenology and its relationship with environmental change.  The Network is a consortium of individuals and organizations that collect, share, and use phenology data, models, and related information.

Our vision: The USA National Phenology Network encourages people of all ages and backgrounds to observe and record phenology as a way to discover and explore the nature and pace of our dynamic world. The Network makes phenology data, models, and related information freely available to empower scientists, resource managers, and the public in decision-making and adapting to variable and changing climates and environments.

How we’re organized: The efforts of the USA-NPN are organized and directed by the staff of the National Coordinating Office. We are currently working to establish a Steering Group that will provide input on the direction of the USA-NPN and on activities of the National Coordinating Office. The activities of the USA-NPN are funded by several organizations, including the U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, National Park Service, The University of Arizona and the National Science Foundation.

Source: USA National Phenology Network,; Image credit: Richard House

Phenology is vital to many aspects of ecology and society and you can help advance our knowledge!

Why Phenology?

Phenology is nature’s calendar—when cherry trees bloom, when a robin builds its nest and when leaves turn color in the fall.

Phenology is a key component of life on earth.  Many birds time their nesting so that eggs hatch when insects are available to feed nestlings.  In turn, insect emergence is often synchronized with leafing out in their host plants. For many people, allergy season starts when particular flowers bloom—earlier flowering means earlier allergies.  Farmers and gardeners need to know when to plant to avoid frosts, and they need to know the schedule of plant and insect development to decide when to apply fertilizers and pesticides. Many interactions in nature depend on timing.  In fact, phenology affects nearly all aspects of the environment, including the abundance, distribution, and diversity of organisms, ecosystem services, food webs, and the global cycles of water and carbon.


Changes in phenological events like flowering and bird migrations are among the most sensitive biological responses to climate change. Across the world, many spring events are occurring earlier—and fall events are happening later—than they did in the past. However, not all species and regions are changing at the same rate, leading to mismatches. How plants and animals respond to climate can help us predict whether their populations will grow or shrink – making phenology a “leading indicator” of climate change impacts.


Phenology plays an important role in human culture, as well. Festivals around the world celebrate annual phenological events from whale migrations to cherry blossoms.


We know a lot about phenology, but there is still much to learn. You can help advance the field by:

  • Collecting data for Nature’s Notebook in your yard, a nearby park or as part of a field study.
  • Organizing a phenology effort locally for data collection, research and/or education.
  • Participating in one of our Research Communities or attending a phenology-related meeting.

We invite you to join us!

Source: USA National Phenology Network;Image credit: Howard B. Eskin

An observer who took this picture in his backyard reported “yes” to flower visitation for a monarch butterfly, and “yes” to open flowers on the milkweed plant.

Our Scientific Approach

The USA-NPN promotes status monitoring, a standardized approach to observing phenology, which builds on previous methods, has been vetted by a community of researchers and can be adapted to a range of questions, sampling designs and ecosystems.

Status Monitoring

Observers following a status monitoring approach visit a site regularly to check the phenological status of marked individual plants and animal species. Life stages, or phenophases, are reported as a series of yes/no questions.

This approach ensures the capture of negative data (when the phenophase is not occurring), repeat events (for example, a second wave of blooming after a desert rain), and allows for an estimation of the uncertainty around the beginning or end date of a life stage.

Use the USA-NPN protocols independently or as part of Nature’s Notebook

The USA-NPN has developed protocols (suites of phenophases) for 35 plant and animal functional groups found in the United States. These protocols PDF Icon can be downloaded and used independently in the field by any researcher or organization.

In addition, the USA-NPN has implemented the status monitoring approach for the 1000 plant and animal species available in its Nature’s Notebook program. This program consists of online training and species information, as well as interfaces (web and mobile) for data entry, an online database and data access tools.

Through the efforts of the National Park Service’s Northeast Temperate Network, protocols are available for acoustic and camera monitoring of phenology (see full protocol or an R toolkit for phenocam data).

Our History | USA National Phenology Network

Source: USA Phenology Network,

The inspiration for a USA National Phenology Network (USA-NPN) had several origins.

In 1956, Joseph Caprio at Montana State University initiated lilac phenological research in the United States. He developed a network of over 2500 volunteer observers reporting from 12 Western states.

Joseph Caprio’s program stimulated development of a similar program in the Eastern USA in 1961, initially under the direction of W.L. Colville from University of Nebraska and had ~300 observers in 1970.

The Eastern network lost funding in 1986, but was continued by Mark D. Schwartz at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee at ~40-50 stations.

The Western States Phenological Network was terminated upon Joseph Caprio’s retirement in 1993, but was reactivated at a handful of sites by Dan Cayan and Mike Dettinger, both affiliated with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and Scripps Institution of Oceanography, to complement studies on the timing of snowmelt discharge.

Today, the lilac dataset, and the Spring Indices derived from it, are delivered for novel scientific research.

At the turn of the century, Mark Schwartz envisioned a revitalized and broad national network that would extend phenological observations to additional species. In  2004, Julio Betancourt at USGS independently arrived at the same conclusion after co-chairing an American Institute of Biological Sciences Grand Challenge Workshop that explored the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON)’s role in studying ecological responses to climate. Betancourt teamed up with Schwartz to organize a spatially-distributed network to achieve continental coverage of phenological observations in collaboration with the intensively-sampled regional nodes at NEON.

Mark Schwartz and Julio Betancourt led several planning and implementation meetings, which led to the funding of a five-year National Science Foundation, Research Coordination Network grant in 2007 (NSF Grant # 0639794). The USGS and the University of Arizona (UA) established a cooperative agreement to found the National Coordinating Office in Tucson, Arizona. The USGS hired Dr. Jake Weltzin, then an Associate Professor at the University of Tennessee and a NSF Program Director, as the USA-NPN Executive Director. Through a series of cooperative agreements, the USGS provides the majority of the financial support for the USA-NPN, while the UA provides office space and administrative support for the network through the School of Natural Resources and the Environment. Several Assistant Directors have managed and strengthened the NCO, primarily at the UA (Mark Losleban, UA, 2008-09; Abe Miller-Rushing, The Wildlife Society, 2009-10; Alyssa Rosemartin, UA, 2010-2015; Theresa Crimmins, UA, Current).

A Board of Directors, led by Mark Schwartz (Chair) and Julio Betancourt (Vice Chair), provided guidance to the USA-NPN National Coordinating Office (NCO) from 2008-2011, when the Board was transformed to an Advisory Committee. The Advisory Committee, comprised of 12 individuals from agencies and academia, was led by Chair Geoff Henebry and Co-Chair Mark Schwartz, until 2015. The NCO is currently working on the establishment of a Steering Group to replace the Advisory Committee. The Steering Group will provide input on the direction of the USA-NPN and on activities of the NCO.  USA-NPN’s structure, governance and planning is regularly updated and described.

Key Workshops and Meetings

Title Location Dates Funded by
1st USA-NPN Planning Workshop Tucson, AZ August 23-26, 2005 NSF, USGS, NPS, EPA, USDA-FS
1st USA-NPN Implementation Team Meeting Tucson, AZ March 22-23, 2006
2nd USA-NPN Planning Workshop Milwaukee, WI October 9-13, 2006 NSF, USGS, NPS, EPA, USDA-FS
USA-NPN Research Coordination Network, Inaugural Meeting Milwaukee, WI August 26-30, 2007 NSF RCN 1
USA-NPN Research Coordination Network Meeting Milwaukee, WI September 15-19, 2008 NSF RCN 2
Towards a National Phenological Assessment Milwaukee, WI October 6-8, 2009 NSF RCN 3
Stakeholders Workshop Milwaukee, WI September 21-22, 2010 NSF RCN 4
Agency Info and Listening Session (and Annual Board Meeting of the USA-NPN) Washington DC May 3-5, 2011 NSF


Grand Challenges and Data Products Milwaukee, WI May 22-23, 2012 NSF RCN 5
Phenology 2012 Milwaukee, WI September 10-12, 2012 NSF, UWM
Advisory Committee Meeting Tucson, AZ January 15-16, 2013 NSF,  USGS
External Programmatic Review Tucson, AZ April 3-6, 2014 USGS