Vernal Windows of Opportunity
Dr. Liz Burakowski remembers when she fell in love with winter.
“My dad got a get-out-of-Jersey card in 1983 and we moved to Wisconsin,” she said. Liz was three. “The silence of the snow was magical to me. Something about the stone walls and trees, and how they hold the snow in their branches and muffle the sound.”
It’s easy to imagine Liz as a little girl, silent, still, making a pact with those Wisconsin woods. A promise that said, if you tell me your secrets, I will listen.
Liz has been listening and learning now for three decades. As a Research Assistant Professor at the Earth Systems Research Center and the Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space at the University of New Hampshire, she conducts research to unlock the intricacies of the vernal window, the narrow slice of calendar between the time the snow cover melts and the forest canopy emerges, between March and May. And she has enlisted GLOBE students from Maine and New Hampshire in her mystery-solving quest.
Before she joined the UNH Earth Science team, Liz sailed on “a very large tall ship, a 135-foot brigantine schooner with the Sea Education Association off the coast of New Hampshire,” she recalled. “One of the scientists on board remarked how the sea surface temperature was getting warmer and warmer. He had been collecting data since the seventies and could see the warming trend. In college, they never talked about that very much…warming was thought of as an economic problem,” not a sign of looming environmental disaster.
“There was a series of bad, warm winters, 2002 than again in 2004, and I asked myself what’s going on? I read a report from UNH by Professor Cameron Wake that said winter was the fastest warming season. I decided I want to study this.”
A paper written by Liz on winter warming patterns was featured, much to her surprise, on the front page of the Boston Globe. (Her non-scientist parents were equally surprised—the Globe article helped them believe their daughter’s dream of being a scientist might have merit.) “I thought, I’m onto something...people care about this,” Liz said. She continued studying the effects of warming oceans on sea industries and on the New Hampshire ski industry for a project called Protect Our Winters, and in 2010 brought her findings to Washington, D.C. “We sat with a Congressional representative from New Hampshire, and when I said that warm winters cost New Hampshire $13 million a year, their ears perked up.” And Liz concluded Protect Our Winters had to be more than a New Hampshire-centric effort.
“I also got involved in citizen science about this time,” she continued. “We needed data on albedo, which has an effect on climate change on a large scale.” Albedo is the amount of solar energy coming onto a surface, like snow cover, divided by the amount the energy being reflected by that surface. “Divide the two, and you get albedo. It’s one of those concepts you can ask kids as young as age six: which would be hotter, someone wearing a white tee shirt or a black tee shirt?”
Liz started a pilot program for citizen scientists—including the 20,000 who collect data for CoCoRaHS, the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network—that said, “You’re already collecting snow data, you can collect albedo data.” As she explains her efforts to expand input from citizen scientists, Liz scans the day’s data submissions online, including information from students at Exeter High School and Rochester High School in New Hampshire, among others, noting that 7,400 points of data had already been submitted by 11 a.m. that day.
“The reason this is so important is that the vernal window season is getting longer,” Liz explained. Speaking in her UNH office last April, she said, “we’re in the middle of the vernal window right now. We’ve seen snow melt. The soil has thawed. Streams and rivers have reached peak flow. We’re waiting for the canopy to come out. If we were to go out in the woods, we would be able to see dappled sunlight on the ground. Spring ephemerals would be able to take advantage of the light on the forest floor.”
But what has changed, according to her research and the data coming in from GLOBE students and others, is that the vernal window is getting longer. “The canopy is getting greener earlier but the snow is disappearing earlier.” The day of last snow in spring 2019 was in the end of March. Back in the fifties, it would happen around April 22. Now it’s closer to April 7. “That’s two weeks less snow cover,” she said.
Conversely, the canopy is also emerging earlier, but only by a week. The result: “a full extra week of mud transitional,” she explained, “a mismatch in timing in energy- and water-related processes.”
The shifts are alarming and lead directly to an increase in the release of the prime culprit in global warming: carbon dioxide. “The delivery of nutrients is happening at high snow melt, but canopies are not leafing out and can’t take advantage of those nutrients—they can’t take up the CO2 being released from the soil. We see an uptick of CO2 released into the atmosphere.” It’s another sign of a warming world.
GLOBE came into the picture when Liz realized she and her colleagues had some data from citizen scientists to augment their own data collection, but not enough information on a large scale about snow and frost depth and canopy emergence. “That’s something schools can do,” she said. “GLOBE is one of the best ways to get students outside and think about their environments. In fact, I think we should be using GLOBE in UNH for our general education science courses. It’s about what’s in their own backyards, not just how climate change affects polar bears.”
GLOBE data from “the other Maine”
“We’re officially in the Bangor metropolitan area, but it’s not too far north before the towns get sparse.” It’s the remoteness of Old Town, however, that gave Ed the idea—long before he heard about GLOBE—that his students could engage in authentic environment data collection specifically because the school was far away from other factors, such as river pollution or road salt runoff, giving them a less compromised outdoor laboratory.
“We have a lovely little bowl, a nicely bounded watershed, that’s been the basis for a long-term study measuring water going into and out of the drain system in Old Town,” Ed explained. Ed and his earth science/collaborative research students have been informing town officials about water quality, giving them a voice in policy and environmental protection. “That gave us a research infrastructure to start with,” Ed said, but it was a paper he read by Dr. Alix Contosta, one of Liz Burkowski’s colleagues at UNH, that planted the seed, so to speak, of using GLOBE with his students.
So, Ed did something unusual. He contacted the GLOBE staff at UNH, rather than what typically happens: GLOBE usually reaches out to make first contact with teachers.
“I called Dr. Sarah Nelson at the University of Maine, who put me in touch with Liz and Alix at UNH. I said, I’m Ed, I’d like to work with you. Their vernal windows work focused our own research.” 2019 was the first year Ed and his students contributed data but they had already become so much a part of the GLOBE community that they sent a six-member team to the 2019 Student Research Symposium in Boston in May.
“We had already started in December, before meeting with GLOBE, doing wintertime into spring study. We had places in the woods instrumented with non-GLOBE stuff and then we added GLOBE protocols,” he said. “It’s nice because the vernal window, in a warming world, tells us what sort of local climate effects we can discern on a changing winter.”
Old Town’s students collect data on snow depth, snow water equivalent, frost depth, CO2 evolution from soil, snow pH, and canopy green up. “In fact,” Ed said on the day of this interview (May 7), “the maple buds just burst yesterday!”
The Old Town prepared four different poster presentations for the symposium. “The posters tell different aspects of the story,” Ed said, from watersheds as a system to frost tube patterns and vernal windows comparisons by tree type within the Old Town forest. One student explored the complicated story of soil electro-conductivity and its effects on soil nutrients. “We’re looking for a phenological signal for nutrients as they become available—what happens as temperatures change, decomposition starts up again, and damaged roots from winter stress become available, generating a lot of nitrate.”
Old Town High School junior Jacob Burns studied “stream flow, measuring what it was before climate change, and what climate change would be like 20 years from now compared to now.” Sophomore Amanda Oertell’s poster examined snow total variations over time. “We’re concluding that the vernal window is getting shorter and we want to know how it will affect the future before the window gets too short,” she said.
Ed’s students have shown full commitment to cold weather data collection, heading outdoors into the biting Maine winter two or three times a week to take their readings, taking their cues from the teacher’s love of being “outside in an unfiltered way.” Ed’s first job after college was as a U.S. observer on foreign fishing vessels in Alaska. He was a catfish farm biologist in Arkansas, a construction worker, and, for a short time, a farmer. He began teaching in his forties and right away realized his students “needed something different, not chemistry out of a textbook.” He relished living “in a place where five streams came together right near the school…a nice watershed study waiting to happen.”
GLOBE dovetails with Ed’s teaching philosophy because it “engages students working on real projects and, practically, is giving a way for people to collaborate. We’re entering data the same way, instead of in our own private Google spreadsheets. The data are public. It brings responsibility to data. Now that I know what GLOBE is, I wrote in into my teacher action plan for next year and will organize around GLOBE data and educational materials on carbon and hydrology.”
He also appreciates GLOBE because it gets students to “meet real people,” including Liz Burkowski, Alix Contosta, and their colleague Apryl Perry who have visited the Old Town site several times and worked side-by-side with Ed and his students learning GLOBE protocols and collecting data, so successfully that the UNH researchers and Maine students are on a first name basis. (Read a story about the Old Town team’s Student Research Symposium experience here.)
As Liz Burkowski works to expand GLOBE’s reach (for example, as a member of GISN, the GLOBE International STEM Network, she uses GLOBE protocols in her externally funded project), she’s expanding its content reach as well. “I would like to make carbon dioxide measurements into a GLOBE protocol but it’s expensive…about $50,” she said. CO2 measuring equipment exists…it’s what professionals use to assess levels before entering potentially lethal environments. In the meantime, she’s exploring less expensive ways to spread the GLOBE message.
“I created a lesson plan activity that introduces teachers to the vernal windows concept,” Liz said. It’s a low-tech approach, with students recording vernal window events on cards—snow melt, soil thaw, peak stream flow, ice out, and snow free dates. “The students have to put them in hypothesized order of events. You think you know how things unfold through the spring until you do this activity. Some get frustrated by the sequence, but you get to see them thinking about the processes that lead to each event and why they occur at different times and different spacings.”
The GLOBE green-up protocol, she explains, is “great…it costs next to nothing. You take a permanent marker, choose a tree, tie a ribbon to a healthy branch, find dormant buds, mark at least four of them, them examine them each spring before they start to swell. Then keep track of them until the buds burst.”
Ultimately, Liz said, she would like to “package the GLOBE vernal window protocols to make it easy for a teacher to implement...give them a shopping list. You can make them out of Home Depot components for 25 bucks, but you need to know how to put them together.” She presented this concept to her colleagues at the GLOBE Annual Meeting conference in Detroit last July.
Teacher professional development is core to Liz’s mission. As a co-PI of a grant to expand the reach of the UNH-developed Carbon Cycle materials, she’s helping to initiate workshops for teachers who attend the spring student research symposia. On the New Hampshire Education Environment Team, Liz joins educators and scientists from diverse organizations like New Hampshire Cooperative Extension, New Hampshire Fish and Game, the U.S.D.A. Forest Service, and Project Learning Tree to integrate their individual resources into organized lesson plans and protocols for K-8 science teachers.
Even at home, Liz is coaching her husband and four-year-old son to keep their eyes open to their world. “In wintertime when I’m doing small sampling, I’ll drive by the fields on Route 155 and my son will ask, ‘Mama, is that your snow sampling site?’ And I’ll say, ‘sure is, that’s the one. The ‘I wonder’ statements from him abound,” just as a three-year-old New Jersey transplant likely whispered similar “I wonder” statements in the Wisconsin winter woods and grew up to pursue the answers.
—C. Ralph Adler
Liz Burakowski is a member of the Leitzel Center GLOBE Partnership at the University of New Hampshire. Her work with the Old Town team is supported through US Forest Service grant #18-CS-11242307-044 and NSF Macrosystems Biology #1802726.
This article was written with support by NASA (Grant no. 80NSSC18K0135) and Youth Learning As Citizen Environmental Scientists (YLACES). Any opinion, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of NASA or YLACES.
News origin: United States of America