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USA National Phenology Network’s volunteer-contributed observations yield predictive models of phenological transitions

TitleUSA National Phenology Network’s volunteer-contributed observations yield predictive models of phenological transitions
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2017
AuthorsCrimmins, TM, Crimmins, MA, Gerst, KL, Rosemartin, AH, Weltzin, JF
JournalPLOS One
Date Published08/2017



In support of science and society, the USA National Phenology Network (USA-NPN) maintains a rapidly growing, continental-scale, species-rich dataset of plant and animal phenology observations that with over 10 million records is the largest such database in the United States. The aim of this study was to explore the potential that exists in the broad and rich volunteer-collected dataset maintained by the USA-NPN for constructing models predicting the timing of phenological transition across species’ ranges within the continental United States. Contributed voluntarily by professional and citizen scientists, these opportunistically collected observations are characterized by spatial clustering, inconsistent spatial and temporal sampling, and short temporal depth (2009-present). Whether data exhibiting such limitations can be used to develop predictive models appropriate for use across large geographic regions has not yet been explored.


We constructed predictive models for phenophases that are the most abundant in the database and also relevant to management applications for all species with available data, regardless of plant growth habit, location, geographic extent, or temporal depth of the observations. We implemented a very basic model formulation—thermal time models with a fixed start date.


Sufficient data were available to construct 107 individual species × phenophase models. Remarkably, given the limited temporal depth of this dataset and the simple modeling approach used, fifteen of these models (14%) met our criteria for model fit and error. The majority of these models represented the “breaking leaf buds” and “leaves” phenophases and represented shrub or tree growth forms. Accumulated growing degree day (GDD) thresholds that emerged ranged from 454 GDDs (Amelanchier canadensis-breaking leaf buds) to 1,300 GDDs (Prunus serotina-open flowers). Such candidate thermal time thresholds can be used to produce real-time and short-term forecast maps of the timing of these phenophase transition. In addition, many of the candidate models that emerged were suitable for use across the majority of the species’ geographic ranges. Real-time and forecast maps of phenophase transitions could support a wide range of natural resource management applications, including invasive plant management, issuing asthma and allergy alerts, and anticipating frost damage for crops in vulnerable states.


Our finding that several viable thermal time threshold models that work across the majority of the species ranges could be constructed from the USA-NPN database provides clear evidence that great potential exists this dataset to develop more enhanced predictive models for additional species and phenophases. Further, the candidate models that emerged have immediate utility for supporting a wide range of management applications.