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Citizen scientists observe trees to understand climate change

The ongoing November Tree Festival focuses on tracking seasonal changes to trees in order to understand the effects of climate change

Seasons are impacted by climate change and trees are the record-keepers of these effects, says Sayee Girdhari of SeasonWatch.
Seasons are impacted by climate change and trees are the record-keepers of these effects, says Sayee Girdhari of SeasonWatch. (Pexels)

“I didn’t know much about climate change and how it impacted our environment until I started observing trees this year,” says Prapti Alva, one of the many students who have turned citizen scientists for SeasonWatch’s November Tree Festival this year. When you really observe trees and not just pass them by, you get a sense of what’s happening in the world, adds Alva, who is currently pursuing a undergraduate degree in zoology at Maharaja Sayajirao University in Vadodara, Gujarat.

This annual event organised by the citizen science project, SeasonWatch, focuses on tracking common tree species and understanding the effects of climate change. During the November Tree Festival, which began on 24 November and will run till 3 December, citizen scientists will observe 171 species of trees and record different stages, such as flowering or the emergence of new buds, and record them using the SeasonWatch app.

Also read: The growing tribe of tree chroniclers on Instagram

“We have been doing this since 2018. We hope it sparks curiosity about nature and people engage with it,” says Sayee Girdhari, project coordinator at SeasonWatch. More than 2,000 people and 2,400 schools have participated every year in the past.

SeasonWatch conducts tree festivals thrice a year to get people to observe how seasons affect trees. A popular challenge is the ‘100-not-out’ in which people observe 100 trees during the 10 days of the festival. Alva won this challenge in March. In ‘Never-before-November’, people have to spot five common tree species--Devil’s Tree, Mast Tree, Indian Almond, Neem and Drumstick

“People have to record details about the same tree repeatedly. This gives a glimpse into what scientists do, which is to perform multiple trials to get a result,” Girdhari says.

Seasons are impacted by climate change and trees are the record-keepers of the effects of climate change, explains Girdhari. From the emergence and maturation of leaves to the blooming of flowers and fruits, people can see how rising temperatures and pollution are affecting trees’ long-term patterns. Currently, about one-third of the world’s tree species are at risk of extinction, a 2021 report by Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI) revealed.

Citizen science, including such festivals, is a way to simplify and engage mor people in science. “It is particularly a good way for students to get a practical lesson on all that they learn in their curriculum. Teachers get to introduce new concepts about nature and plant and animal interactions,” says Girdhari. When children grow up observing nature, they develop a bond and a sense of empathy, which is important for any kind of activism or conservation, she adds. “When people see their garden or trees that they pass by daily responding to erratic climate, it’s a soft launch of climate change into their lives and makes them realize that its impact is much closer than they imagined.”

For this month’s festival, Alva has already observed more than 80 trees and is on her way to potentially winning a challenge again. But it’s not about that, she says. “Since understanding the trees and how animals interact with them, I want to work in conservation. This experience is something that I want to carry forward,” she adds.

Also read: How citizen initiatives are saving Mumbai's fallen trees






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