Is August the New September?

© Louise Brodie

Become a CLIMATE BUDDY and help us find out ...Everyone in South Africa seems to have noticed that the weather is unusual for this time of year.

Depending on where you live and who you're asking, it's either hotter, colder, wetter or drier than anyone can remember. So, as spring becomes the new summer, the question being asked by researchers at the Ndlovu Node of the South African Environmental Observation Network (SAEON) is what exactly is happening?It seems that the global climate is changing, and the heat is definitely on. Average temperatures world-wide have increased by almost 1oC in the last century and are predicted to rise by another 5oC by 2100.

How is the natural world responding to a changing climate? Mounting evidence from studies in the northern hemisphere reveals that deciduous trees are leafing, flowers are blooming and migratory birds are arriving one to two weeks earlier than they did 30 years ago. In essence, spring has sprung - but it's all happening just a little too soon.By monitoring the timing of biological events (known as phenology) in plants and animals locally, researchers at the Ndlovu Node are attempting to understand and respond to the impacts of climate change on South Africa's biodiversity.

"As the timing of important events shift, we anticipate problems for the completion of life cycles in certain organisms; the loss of synchrony between interacting species (especially between plants and their pollinators), resource limitations and changes in the competitive advantage between species," says Dr Dave Thompson, manager: biodiversity research at the SAEON Ndlovu Node.

Thompson predicts that these problems will have a negative impact on the composition and organisation of the natural world around us. "It is important to realise that the need to understand and manage climate-related changes is much broader than simply wanting to be environmental good Samaritans," he explains. "Consider for a moment the impact of failed insect pollination on fruit and crop production - it will have a disastrous effect on food production."

One of the biggest challenges that climate-change biologists face in understanding the response of organisms to the environment, is that the effect of recent weather events can mask the effect of long-term climate change.The impact of these very different factors on plants and animals can only be separated by analysing large amounts of data recorded over decades and ideally sourced from many different localities. Unfortunately this is exactly the sort of data that is sorely lacking in South Africa.

Your help is needed

In order to address this shortfall, SAEON is asking for your help in two new citizen science projects - Climate Buddy and Turning a new leaf - which complement the Bird's eye view migration monitoring project launched in 2007."We are calling on members of the public, from individuals and families to groups such as schools and environmental / conservation bodies, to participate in observing local biological events that are likely indicators of climate change," says Thompson."The depth and breadth of data that can be collected by an organised group of enthusiastic volunteers will allow researchers to conduct studies that would have otherwise been logistically impossible," explains Thompson. "Every pair of eyes - and every record - counts."

You don't have to be an expert to participate in the monitoring projects being run by the Ndlovu Node. Bird's eye view simply asks that people be on the lookout for the first arrival of easily recognisable migrant bird species in their area, and then to catalogue the arrival dates with SAEON.The two projects launched this season focus on the timing of important and conspicuous plant life cycle events and are geared more towards the keen gardener and amateur botanist.

Climate Buddy is concerned with monitoring the opening dates of flower buds in spring, while the Turning a new leaf project aims to track spring leafing and autumn leaf drop in deciduous trees."We welcome observations from anybody in any part of the country who is keen to be involved," says Thompson.If you would like to receive more information about becoming a citizen scientist and joining SAEON's network of observers, or if you have already been collecting this environmental information, please contact Dr Dave Thompson on +27 (0) 13 735 3534 / 35. Alternatively, queries about specific projects can be directed to, or

Observer registration forms can be downloaded from and returned via email, fax (+27 (0) 13 735 3544) or post (NRF / SAEON Ndlovu Node, Private Bag X1021, Phalaborwa, 1390). photo: Lynette Strauss

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