During my time as a Scientists in Parks intern working with the National Park Service and AMC, my focus was along the New England National Scenic Trail. Part of my role was to help launch a community science project that utilizes iNaturalist, a plant and animal ID app, to track fruiting and flowering times of native species along the trail corridor. My day-to-day work consisted of curating iNaturalist observations, setting up tables at popular trailheads to introduce the project to hikers, and conducting virtual outreach to get the word out. In my final report, I analyzed more than 3,000 collected observations to measure how fruiting and flowering changes in response to factors like elevation, latitude, or climate change.
As my summer as a National Park Service Scientists in Parks intern ends, I’m leaving with a deeper understanding of AMC and the work the organization does throughout the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. Here’s five things I learned during my internship.
1. The Appalachian Mountain Club doesn’t just work in the Appalachian Mountains.
While this may be obvious to most (or all) of you, coming from coastal Connecticut, I was woefully unaware of the beauty of the forested outdoors. I had no clue that I would be welcomed into the oldest conservation organization in the United States. I especially wasn’t aware of the scope of AMC’s conservation work. Across the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, AMC conducts environmental research, protects lands and waters, and builds and maintains trails. My internship placement was at the New England National Scenic Trail, where I kickstarted the New England Trail Nature Watch, a community science project that utilizes crowdsourced plant observations. AMC maintains the Massachusetts section of the trail, roughly half of its 215-mile length. Working with landowners and stakeholders, AMC ensures that this federally designated land can continue to provide a recreational space for hikers far into the future.
2. Community Science is an invaluable tool for research.
Gathering information about our world from amateur scientists has been a tradition since records began. Really. Locust outbreaks in China have been recorded by citizens for 3,500 years. Cherry blossoms in Japan have been tracked since 800 A.D.! Even in the United States, farmers have been tracking timing of harvests, pest outbreaks, and important weather events for hundreds of years. Community scientists are essential in building robust data sets professionals need to answer questions. There truly is more power in numbers.
By participating in community science, you not only get the satisfaction of contributing to research, but also provide a great excuse to head outside and learn about your local land. Apps or websites such as iNaturalist make it easy to identify that funky plant or noisy bird in your backyard while also providing data to scientists. And by volunteering a few minutes of your time to collect data for projects such as the New England Trail Nature Watch, you are directly aiding our ability to understand how climate change will affect us and our natural spaces.
3. Our Springs are Changing
Climate change is a fact. We know this. We don’t, however, know how nature will change in response. In the Northeast, research shows that winters are shortening and summers are getting warmer. Sea level is rising and storms are worsening. Spring is changing too, but how much? Plant flowering times can help shed light on that question.
Using iNaturalist I gathered thousands of plant observations made by community scientists near the New England Trail. Next, I looked at when plants were flowering to make a best estimate of when spring started. While I couldn’t see changes in spring due to climate change with my 10 years of data, I was able to make some useful conclusions. Higher elevation areas and those further north in Massachusetts warm more slowly , meaning spring is arriving later there. Three species (yellow trout lily, jack-in-the-pulpit, and Canada mayflower) are among the best spring indicators for our research. This is just a baseline, though. It is essential to continue monitoring changing seasons through iNaturalist. Only through community science will we be able to gather data for many years to come, allowing us to monitor the health of our outdoor spaces.
4. AMC supports sound science.
AMC’s Conservation Research Team is a small group of dedicated professionals, with projects ranging from cartography and air quality to plant phenology and eDNA. The researchers working at AMC contribute to our understanding of outdoor spaces across the country. Becoming part of this team, even for a short while, has been a great privilege. AMC prides itself on sound science that includes communities that may not otherwise have access to participate in research. Working with AMC has without a doubt made me a better scientist.
5. I will never forget my time here.
Time to get sentimental. I’ve enjoyed my time as a Biology Assistant with the Park Service and AMC immensely. I got to explore my own local spaces in Connecticut, as well as those I never thought to visit (I highly recommend the summit of Mount Washington—the view is out of this world). Working with the other interns has taught me the importance of learning from peers and the power of collaboration. My mentors have given me the skills to continue environmental research far into the future. Most importantly, I truly appreciate the value of community science. Readers like you can truly make or break our research. Only through community science have I built a decade’s worth of data and set up a monitoring project that can tell us about how climate change is impacting Massachusetts and Connecticut. Science is truly not a one-person job. I am eternally grateful to have learned that lesson as an intern at AMC.