It’s a sunny October day, and AMC staff scientist Georgia Murray is on the Tuckerman Ravine Trail in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, gathering data for an ambitious project that charts climate change on the Appalachian Trail (AT).
As hikers set out, packs full and boots not yet muddy, Murray uses the Nature’s Notebook app on her phone to capture information about a patch of Canada mayflower: pretty little perennials that yield fluffy white flowers in spring and summer, followed by tiny red berries in fall.
The app knows it’s autumn and asks if the Canada mayflower is producing berries. It is. Are they soft? Murray leans over to check, gently squeezing a berry. Yes. She counts the small red orbs and checks another box.
The study of these seasonal changes, such as when flowers bud and leaves fall, is known as phenology, and it can reveal a lot about how climate change is shaping the trail. Already, flowers are blooming earlier in the season, treelines are moving higher up the mountains, and invasive species are spreading.
Individual trail groups have been gathering information in their own ways for years, such as AMC’s Mountain Watch program, launched in 2003. But it wasn’t until 2013 that a new initiative, A.T. Seasons, began pooling this collective data and combining it with that of weather stations, including the Mount Washington Observatory. A.T. Seasons, in turn, is part of the National Phenology Network, which collects phenology data around the world through methods including the Nature’s Notebook app.
AMC and other trail organizations assign specific sections of the AT to volunteers who monitor changes several times a month, spring through fall. (AMC is responsible for monitoring 12 sites in the White Mountains.) Participating citizen scientists include teachers and students from nearby schools—a win-win that provides needed information for conservationists and real-world math and science lessons for students.
The data they collect helps stewards factor climate change into their trail work and planning. Marian Orlousky, the resource management coordinator for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, uses the findings to schedule invasive species removal. The timing has to be just right, she says, so the weeds don’t grow back.
The information also has implications for recreation. Hikers can get a better idea of what to expect, from when black flies will begin their annual torment to when fall foliage will reach its most splendid.
As both a hiker and a scientist helping plan the trail’s future, Murray will take all of the information she can get. “A lot of citizen science is the value of crowdsourcing—the volume of data,” she says. “We’re hoping citizen scientists will help us fill in the gaps.”