Science Story May 2023
Many of us humans complain about the disruption of daylight saving time, yet somehow we adapt. Imagine the clock shifting enough to throw whole seasons off by weeks or more. If all the species in nature set their clocks to synchronize with the new schedule, it might not be a problem. But they don’t. Seasons are clearly shifting. However, “Species are not responding identically,” says Dr. David Inouye in a recent National Geographic article featuring his 50-year phenology study at RMBL.
When Dr. Inouye and other RMBL participants started the phenology research (the study of life cycle events) in the early 1970s, climate change was not on the radar, even in the scientific community. Over half a century later, his work continues to garner more attention and publicity both in scientific and layman circles. In the context of climate change, it has become recognized by a broad audience as critically important.
Climate change itself has steadily become more evident to the general public, says Dr. Inouye. Anyone who’s spending time outdoors — gardeners, anglers, recreationists — can see that nature is changing. Thanks to Dr. Inouye’s over 50-year data set, the changes regular people can’t miss are backed up by science.
The length of the phenology study, along with the detailed data collected, has much to do with its significance. Even Dr. Inouye says that when he started the project, he didn’t realize that it would take decades to reach some of the discoveries he’s made. You need 30 years of data before you can find patterns that involve 15-year cycles or other infrequent events. Having 53 years of research yields insights that you can’t get any other way.
The work also stands out because long-term phenology studies are not a staple of every field station. Most National Science Foundation grants are typically for two to three years. Dr. Inouye’s work, however, has received such positive reception in the scientific community that the NSF has been willing to make 10-year grants to sustain it. The project is now in its third decade of NSF funding. Absent such generous support, researchers are forced to get creative. In fact, for the first 30 years of the phenology study, Dr. Inouye conducted the research without funding, essentially working it into his schedule alongside his funded research.
His commitment to the study’s continuation has only increased with over half a century of experience. He has recently started an endowment that will help ensure that the work continues regardless of outside grants. The endowment is primarily aimed at keeping the flowering phenology project thriving, but if enough funds are available, there could be support for other research such as a 15-year ground squirrel study, marmot research, or the 16-year bee survey started by Dr. Becky Irwin in collaboration with the phenology project.
While long-term research studies are rarer in the U.S., they can be a matter of course in other parts of the globe. The annual appearance of the famous cherry blossoms in Kyoto, Japan, have been recorded for 12 centuries, according to a March 2021 report in Reuters, and could well represent the world’s longest studied subject of flowering phenology. March 2021 marked the earliest blooming of cherry blossoms in 1,200 years. It would be hard to find a more vivid case for climate change.
Few know the value of long-term phenology research better than Dr. Inouye. But the world is catching up. As the recognition of his work has increased, he has been contacted by other scientists, interviewed for other publications, asked to speak at public talks throughout Colorado, and invited to speak at scientific meetings, like the one he‘ll address at Penn State in June. A couple of years ago, a college classmate came for a visit, and Dr. Inouye took him to Gothic. His non-scientist friend was so impressed with the phenology work that he has contributed to Dr. Inouye’s endowment two years in a row.
Contributions are always welcome. After all, what price can be put on the contributions Dr. Inouye has made to science and the world?
David Inouye is Professor Emeritus at the University of Maryland, College Park, and Principal Investigator at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory. He first came to Gothic in 1971 to take courses, returned in 1972 as a graduate student, and has done research at RMBL since then. He and his wife Bonnie overwinter near Paonia. He volunteers on the Boards of the Endangered Species Coalition, North American Pollinator Protection Campaign, and Citizens for a Healthy Community. He also participates in the USDA-funded effort to establish a national monitoring program for native bees, and a new Colorado project for assessing bee biodiversity.