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UMD professor leads volunteer study to better understand environmental changes

UMD assistant professor Jessica Savage has put together a team of volunteers who record phenological changes in trees and shrubs throughout the growing season.

Sue Henke, from left, Jessica Savage and Barbara Possin, all of Duluth, examine a tamarack tree Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021, at Bagley Nature Area in Duluth. A group of master naturalists from the Head of the Lakes Master Naturalists met with Savage, a biologist and assistant professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth, to learn about phenology, the study of the timing of recurring biological events and the causes of their timing with regard to the seasons and climate. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

In order to better understand how plants change with the changing climate, a University of Minnesota Duluth assistant biology professor has started a citizen science program. Volunteers from around Duluth, and one on Madeline Island, have been going out for walks on three nature trails to track the phenological changes taking place in three types of trees.

"Phenology is a really nice way to see those changes," assistant professor Jessica Savage said to a group of local master naturalists on a trail walk Sunday afternoon. "Every year we're getting a lot more variability in our climate and we use phenology to tangibly track those changes. It helps us better understand how our climate is changing around us and what that means."

The volunteers go out once a week to one of three trails along the Lakewalk, at Boulder Lake Environmental Center or at UMD's Bagley Nature Area. Savage explained that here in the Twin Ports, Lake Superior creates a large, unique temperature gradient across the landscape. In recent years, Lake Superior has been getting warmer so she wanted to study how this might affect the local environment. Savage’s goal is to measure those changes and gain a better understanding of how plants may be adapting.

"We mark the distinct stages that the plants go through," Savage said. "We have a large list that we'll go through to mark if, for example, the balsam fir is starting to go through a certain needle stage or if its cones are starting to develop. And then with the data we can see if that's at a different time than years in the past."


Barbara Possin, from left, Jessica Savage and Joyce Hein, all of Duluth, use binoculars to examine the cones at the top of a balsam fir Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021, at Bagley Nature Area in Duluth. Savage, a biologist and assistant professor at University of Minnesota Duluth, visited with local master naturalists to talk about how plants change with the seasons and how people can contribute to phenology research. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

There are 24 trees on each trail that the volunteers visit and observe the various changes by taking notes in a phenology app on their smartphones.

"For me it’s kind of a Zen experience. You get to know these 24 trees here. You go out and visit your trees and suddenly everything feels right with the world," said volunteer Sue Henke. "You get to know the trees really well and start to think of them as things like 'the poor little tamarack with no cones.'"

Volunteer Mary Gabrys said the hardest part for her is seeing some of the trees decline.

"At Bagley, this is the first year I've seen some of the balsam firs decline. It feels so much more personal. I feel like I know this tree and it's sad to see it go through this change," Gabrys said.

Jessica Savage, a biologist and assistant professor at University of Minnesota Duluth, gestures while talking to members of the Head of the Lakes Master Naturalists on Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021, at Bagley Nature Area in Duluth. Savage studies phenology, which relates to the timing of events in the natural world like when plants first flower or leaf out. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Both Gabrys and Henke said the experience has prompted them to start noticing changes in their own neighborhoods.


"You definitely look at the trees in your own yard differently," Henke said. "You start to notice a lot more."

This is the third year that this group, called the Lake Superior Phenology Network , has been recording data. Right now there are about 12 volunteers who visit the various sites and record the changes, but Savage said she hopes to see the program grow. Those interested in the program can visit to learn more.

Fruit seen in the canopy of a paper birch Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021, at Bagley Nature Area in Duluth. The small pods are the fruit of the tree and is one item that phenologists track throughout the year. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

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