Volunteer scientists study flowers to battle climate dread

The data they’re collecting is helping researchers evaluate how ecosystems change.

 

Native bear grass spotted during a MeadoWatch hike.

Most hikers on the Reflection Lakes trail have their cameras pointed at Mount Rainier; Karen Sy, however, had her back to the imposing mountain. Instead, she examined a patch of spindly, tufted plants that look like Dr. Seuss’ truffula trees. In any case, Rainier looked hazy; choking wildfire smoke had pushed air quality readings into the “unhealthy” range for days. Luckily, Sy had come prepared with an N-95 respirator mask, so she could concentrate on writing down her observations: Western anemones, in their fruiting stage — typical for mid-August.

She’d braved the smoky weather for MeadoWatch, a program that enlists volunteers to collect wildflower data on hikes at Mount Rainier National Park. Three volunteers at a different plot told me that they find the program rewarding, in part because it provides an opportunity to inject much-needed scientific data into political discussions about climate change. Rather than agonizing over struggling animal species and changing ecosystems, recording observations feels like a proactive step to stave off climate dread.

The program also has the power to expand volunteers’ ideas of who can be a scientist. Joshua Jenkins, MeadoWatch’s program management intern, is a prime example: When lead researcher Janneke Hille Ris Lambers hired him, he was the first intern on the project who didn’t have a science background. “Janneke talks about reimagining who can be a scientist, and I think that message is really powerful,” he said.

Western anemone in its fruiting stage looks like it belongs in a Dr. Seuss book.
Photo courtesy of MeadoWatch
Hille Ris Lambers, who studies the effects of climate change on plants at the University of Washington, launched the program in 2013. She initially turned to citizen science as a means of maximizing data collection; this year, she estimated that the program’s 142 volunteers will make around 10,000 observations. “As a scientist, I love nothing more than data,” she said. But perhaps the most rewarding part has been getting to know the volunteers. “We don’t keep official numbers on it, but I know of at least a couple volunteers who have gone back to school to get a degree in science.”

To entice volunteers and collect quality samples, Hille Ris Lambers selected hikes the way Goldilocks picked her porridge: She chose two trails that were known for their wildflower blooms but were not too popular, and that span a range of elevations but are not too steep. Hikers stop at predetermined plots, marked by neon orange tokens, and jot down the flower species they see, as well as the plant’s life cycle stage — whether it is budding, flowering, fruiting or seeding.

In aggregate, these observations will give researchers a clearer picture of how plants’ life cycles will change in response to climate shifts. “If snow melts earlier, on average, wildflowers are going to bloom earlier,” Hille Ris Lambers explained. That will have cascading effects for the surrounding ecosystem; for instance, if some flowers bloom earlier, the animals that eat those plants may need to adjust their behavior accordingly — or develop a different diet.

Hille Ris Lambers was hesitant to report any definitive conclusions based on the project’s six years of data, but hikers on the trail had their own anecdotes about how the plants’ environment is changing. On the way back down to the trailhead, I ran into two of Sy’s friends, who had decided to take it slow on account of the wildfire smoke. One of them, Dan Paquette, who has hiked around Rainier as a volunteer for MeadoWatch and other programs for 20 years, told me that he’d never seen it so dry and hot. According to a National Park Service report on Mount Rainier’s climate, that trend will continue; the average temperature is projected to increase by another 3 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of this century, causing drier summers and wetter winters.  

Paquette also noted that the area where we stood was usually filled with lupines, as far as the eye can see. He was not the only one who noticed; all six volunteers on the trail that day asked Jenkins about it. The lupines we did see were struggling; at one plot, Jenkins pointed out some yellowing leaves, crisp and withered as a neglected houseplant. “This stuff is definitely dying,” he said.

While the lupines felt like a gloomy presage, the joy of the volunteers was apparent. Despite the smoky haze visible on the trail and palpable in the lungs, the atmosphere was less suffocating than it was in Seattle. After volunteers Pat Cirone, Elly Adelman and Dana Davoli identified a north microseris seedpod, they cheered and laughed. “It’s the excitement of the chase,” joked Adelman. Plus, Davoli said, the trail provided a welcome reprieve from the dismal headlines the volunteers encounter in everyday life. “Everything is so negative right now politically, and to do something positive is so nice.”

Note: This story has been corrected to reflect the correct name of a MeadoWatch volunteer; her name is Karen Sy, not Karen Omahen Murante.

Jane C. Hu is an independent journalist who writes about science, identity and the outdoors. She lives in Seattle. 

High Country News Classifieds
  • CLIMATE CHANGE COORDINATOR
    The Greater Yellowstone Coalition is seeking a Climate Change Coordinator to play a lead role in shaping our programs to make the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Executive Director Position Announcement POSITION TITLE: Executive Director ORGANIZATION: Friends of Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument REPORTING TO: Board of Directors EMPLOYMENT TYPE: Part-time - Full-time, based...
  • HEALTHY CITIES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Healthy Cities Program Director leads and manages the Healthy Cities Program for the Arizona Chapter and is responsible for developing and implementing innovative, high...
  • CONSERVATION PROGRAM MANAGER
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Conservation Programs Manager Job Opening Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Associate Director Job Posting Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through science,...
  • UNIQUE, ENERGY-EFFICIENT HOME ON ACREAGE NEAR MOSCOW, IDAHO
    Custom-built energy-efficient 3000 sqft two-story 3BR home, 900 sqft 1 BR accessory cottage above 2-car garage and large shop. Large horse barn. $1,200,000. See online...
  • OUTDOOR ADVENTURE BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Missoula Outdoor Learning Adventures (MOLA) - established and profitable outdoor adventure & education business in Missoula, Montana. Summer camp, raft & climb guide, teen travel,...
  • OJO SARCO FARM/HOME
    A wonderful country setting for a farm/work 1350s.f. frame home plus 1000 studio/workshop. 5 acres w fruit trees, an irrigation well, pasture and a small...
  • STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Join Skagit Land Trust (the Trust), a not-for-profit conservation organization based in Mount Vernon, Washington, and help protect land for people and wildlife. Skagit Land...
  • 2022 SEASONAL SCIENCE EDUCATOR
    The Mount St. Helens Institute Science Educator supports our science education and rental programs including day and overnight programs for youth ages 6-18, their families...
  • POLICY DIRECTOR
    Heart of the Rockies Initiative is seeking a Policy Director to lead and define policy efforts to advance our mission to keep working lands and...
  • CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER
    Self-Help Enterprises seeks an experienced and strategic CFO
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST - LAND PROTECTION FOCUS
    View full job description and how to apply at
  • RIVER EDUCATOR & GUIDE
    River Educator & Guide River Educator & Guide (Trip Leader) Non-exempt, Seasonal Position: Full-time OR part-time (early April through October; may be flexible with start/end...
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
  • FOOD SYSTEMS ENVIRONMENTAL FELLOWSHIP
    If you were to design a sustainable society from the ground up, it would look nothing like the contemporary United States. But what would it...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is seeking an Executive Director who will lead RiGHT toward a future of continued high conservation impact, organizational...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Help protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Work hard, meet good people, make the world a better place!...
  • NEW BOOK:
    True Wildlife Tales From Boy to Man. Finding my voice to save wildlife in the Apache spirit. 365+ vivid colorful pictures. Buy on Amazon/John Wachholz
  • CHIEF OPERATIONS OFFICER
    with Rural Community Assistance Corporation. Apply here: https://www.marcumllp.com/executive-search/chief-operations-officer-rcac