Media Advisory: As fall colors blanket WNY, UB students observe trees for national program

Students are submitting data to the National Phenology Network, which asks citizen scientists to help monitor ecological events

Release Date: November 4, 2019

“Through this project, the students are making real observations that are used in real science to understand how nature responds to changing environmental conditions. ”
Adam Wilson, assistant professor of geography
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. — As fall colors enliven Western New York, University at Buffalo students are monitoring trees on campus as part of a national citizen science initiative.

The activity is part of the Earth, Environment and Climate Laboratory, an undergraduate course led by Adam Wilson, PhD, a biogeographer and assistant professor of geography in the UB College of Arts and Sciences.

As part of their class work, the student researchers are sending observations of local trees each week to the USA National Phenology Network, a national program that invites citizen scientists, educators and other partners to track the timing of ecological events across the U.S.

Phenology is the study of seasonal and cyclical variations in ecological events, such as flowers blooming or birds building nests.

The UB undergraduates are monitoring leaf loss and color change, with an option to also submit information on other traits, such as fruit maturity and fruit/seed droppage.

Media are invited to join Wilson and a small group of students at UB on Tuesday, Nov. 5 as they make observations on campus (details below).

“Through this project, the students are making real observations that are used in real science to understand how nature responds to changing environmental conditions,” Wilson says. “Worldwide, the signature of falling leaves is apparent in the seasonal variability of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. When the trees in the Northern Hemisphere lose their leaves, they stop removing CO2 from the atmosphere and global CO2 increases, adding to emissions created by human activity. It might seem insignificant, but the timing of spring leaf out and fall senescence is an important factor in the global carbon cycle. Our students are learning, first hand, how very local processes — such as when one of ‘their’ trees loses its leaves — scale up to impact global phenomenon.”

What: Student observations of WNY trees for citizen science

What: Experiential learning through fall tree observations

When: Tuesday, Nov. 5 from 12:45 p.m. to 1:30 p.m.

Where: The group will meet at the entrance of Wilkeson Quadrangle on UB’s North Campus, accessible via parking lots off Frontier Road. Wilkeson Quadrangle, part of the Ellicott Complex, can be viewed on this map of North Campus, and the exact meeting location is marked on this Google map.

Who: A small group of UB undergraduates (about 5) will make observations of trees on campus, and enter the data on their smartphones. The students will be available for interviews during this time.

Wilson will also be available to answer questions and share visualizations of data collected so far as part of the project.

On-site contact: Charlotte Hsu in University Communications at 510-388-1831, and Wilson at

Why: This fall’s tree observations mark the start of a long-term project to track ecological events on campus, and to share data from Western New York with a national initiative. 

“This is the first semester of this project, and I plan to continue this in future years, so we’ll soon have a massive dataset to look at how the plants (and later, animals) on campus respond to climatic variability,” Wilson says. “The data collected through the National Phenology Network can be used to improve national models of phenological variability, and are available to researchers. These data have been used in many scientific papers, including my own.”

In all this semester, about 200 students in the course are together monitoring a total of 100 trees on campus. Each student has been assigned to monitor four trees once a week throughout the semester, with repeat observations of the same trees. As of mid-October, the undergraduate scientists had submitted over 15,000 data points to the National Phenology Network.

By making observations of the natural world on campus, students gain hands-on experience in science, contributing to real-world research efforts in a meaningful way.

Data collected through the UB course can be viewed using the National Phenology Network’s online visualization tool.

Media Contact Information

Charlotte Hsu is a former staff writer in University Communications. To contact UB's media relations staff, email or visit our list of current university media contacts.