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Phénoclim, a scientific and educational program measuring climate change

Phénoclim invites the public to measure the impact of climate change on the vegetation of the Alps by making simple observations. This scientific and educational program is for children and adults, schools, associations and individuals, and goes beyond simple observation of the climate.

SEPTEMBER 2014

© Créa

  • Project partner:  Altitude Ecosystems Research Center (CREA), www.creamontblanc.org
  • Country:  France, Alps
  • Project type: Preservation of the environment
  • Budget: €6,500 in 2007

Global warming is a very current topic. During the last fifty years, the average temperature in Europe has gone up by 1 °C. With a warming of between 1 and 3 °C, the Alps seem to be particularly affected by this phenomenon. The impact on the wildlife and the flora could be significant; France has lost close to a quarter of its biodiversity in less than 20 years. If the models are confirmed, each biological ecosystem could move higher in altitude by between 600 and 700 m during this century.

Journalist Christophe Migeon interviews Anne Delestrade, Founder and Director of the Altitude Ecosystems Research Center (CREA)

What is the CREA?

Anne Delestrade: The CREA is an organization created in 1996 from an original idea of carrying out projects on pure and applied research in the alpine ecology field, while trying to reach the general public. There is unfortunately something of a gap between the scientific world and the public. The idea of the CREA is to bring these two universes closer and to be their interface.

Can you explain what the term "phenology" covers?

Anne Delestrade: Phenology is the study of the apparition of periodic events, often annual, in the living world, and defined by the seasonal variations of the climate. This means the observation of the different stages of life of vegetation (forming of the bud, blossoming, maturing of the fruit...) and also of animals (arrival of migratory birds, nesting, emergence of marmots, appearance of worms, bugs...). These recurrent seasonal phenomena are great indicators of climate change. Temperature is a dominant environmental factor influencing the start of these different stages. With the Phénoclim program, started in the fall of 2004, we decided to focus our interest specifically on vegetation.

How do you operate?

Anne Delestrade: The principle is to create a network of observers capable of taking samples close to their homes. We selected ten plants: trees like spruce, larch, common birch, downy birch, ash or mountain ash, and also bushes like hazel and lilac as well as herbaceous plants, primrose and coltsfoot. Each observer chooses three different sorts of species and fills in cards to record the major stages of the plant's life: burgeoning, foliation, and blossoming in the spring, color change and fall of leaves in autumn. This way, we can keep track of 162 zones, thanks to 71 schoolchildren, 62 individuals, 14 protected spaces, and 15 organizations. The gathered data is very precise and allows us to work at the local level.

Parallel to these field observations, you also have a network of temperature measuring stations...

Installation of a weather observation station © CRÉA Anne Delestrade: Yes, we've put stations in place equipped with captors positioned at different heights from the ground (5 cm below the ground surface, at ground surface, at 30 cm and at 2 m) to record the temperature every 15 minutes. This also allows us to estimate the depth of the snow cover. The first stations we put in place need human intervention to transfer the data. We need to download the data from the memory card and transfer it over the Internet.
In partnership with the Somfy Foundation and three technical/professional secondary schools, we have just finalized a new generation of stations made of high-tech material, which should increase their lifespan considerably. They are capable of enduring extreme conditions and, notably, ensuring automatic transmission of the data every three hours through a cellular phone system. Thirty new prototypes will soon be set up and added to the 38 existing ones. Our goal by the end of the project is to have about a hundred of these high-tech stations.

Have you been able to discern any patterns since the end of 2004?

Anne Delestrade: No, it is of course too short a lapse of time for patterns to emerge yet. Meanwhile, comparisons are possible between one year and another, and we have been lucky to observe years that were quite different from each other. 2007's early spring certainly suggests the model for upcoming years. Our database is incredibly precise and has allowed us to get very interesting results, especially at the local level. Differences are outlined between the north and the south of the Alps, as well as between the bottom of the valleys and the higher terrain. The data reveal the importance of relief, especially regarding the convex/concave aspect. A temperature inversion occurs in the bottom of the valleys, which keeps the cold air down, while higher terrain warms faster. Our observations bring this phenomenon clearly to light.

How did the help from the Foundation take shape?

Jean-Jacques Eleouet, Petzl Foundation's Secretary- General: It was Annie Mejan, who was at the time working for the Somfy Foundation, who presented this project to me. I was immediately interested in this long-term scientific study. The CREA needed a lot of help to install their network of new-generation stations, so the Petzl Foundation presented the CREA project at the European Outdoor Group competition. The EOG Association for Conservation is made up of about fifty major companies in the outdoor equipment industry from around the world, like Patagonia, the North Face, Deuter, Ferrino... and of course Petzl. The EOG each year funds half a dozen projects for the protection of the environment on conservation sites. Phénoclim was selected and awarded 30,000 €.
After that, to help the organization think about its strategic positioning and better manage its sponsorship funds, we offered our own expert support and financed a day of reflection under the guidance of an external consultant.

Do you plan to publish the results for the general public?

Anne Delestrade: For now, we are going to publish them in a scientific bioclimatology journal, and then certainly put together a synthesis for the general public. But our main goal is to raise general public awareness by including them in the program and making them critical with regard to the messages they get from the media, to make them aware of the complexity of the problem. We tend to mix up the environmental effects of global warming with the effects linked to human activity.

Phénoclim © CRÉA

About Anne Delestrade

Birthday: September 1962
Thesis in Ecology: Food search strategy of the Alpine chough.
Founder and Director of the CREA, Altitude Ecosystems Research Center, since 1996.
Favorite place: The Couvercle Hut on the Mont-Blanc massif.
Favorite Person: Théodore Monod. "I would have really liked to associate him with the creation of the CREA; his work reflects this constant concern to link pure research to general public awareness.I also admire his great versatility..."

Updated in september 2014


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