Meet the Lehigh Valley man who's been tracking 40 years of climate change from his backyard
SOUTH WHITEHALL TWP., Pa. — Fred Buse has watched the progression of climate change in the Lehigh Valley from his kitchen table.
With his laptop open, a notebook and pen nearby, and his binoculars never too far out of reach, each day he views his backyard garden through a large window, meticulously hand-writing notes in scratchy black cursive.
“This really shows the climate change,” Buse, 87, said recently, pointing to a presentation slide on his laptop where he organizes the data, showing the average temperature increasing over time. “It’s getting warmer and warmer. This is from 1990. This is 30 years.”
“If I just showed the last five years, it shows a different picture.”
A decade or so after buying his township home in the late 1960s, Buse started recording the average temperature, precipitation type and amount, as well as any animal sightings in his backyard to study and track the health of the local environment. In 2021, he published his findings in a more than 500-page book, “Anticipation: The Effects of Climate and Environmental Changes on the Annual Cycle of Life on the Flora and Fauna in a Suburban Backyard.” From time to time, he also gives presentations at local clubs and libraries.
Over the decades, he’s accumulated thousands of data points, illustrating the difference between weather and climate – and how it’s changing.
“I have the data,” Buse said.
Originally from Long Island — he retains the accent — Buse's mother taught him about gardening from her World War II victory garden. He’s built a backyard oasis, turning a field into a lush garden with a handful of bird feeders and a pond full of goldfish.
Asked why he started his intense note-taking, his answer was simple.
“The anticipation of, 'Who am I going to see? And who's popping out of the ground?' And, by doing that year by year, I see the health of the environment.”Fred Buse
“I started to write it down, and why? To get knowledge of what's happening out there,” Buse said, pointing to his backyard. “The anticipation of, 'Who am I going to see? And who's popping out of the ground?' And, by doing that year by year, I see the health of the environment.”
Buse didn’t even know there was a name for what he was doing — just that he was taking the time to record his observations.
"Years after I got into it, somebody says, ‘Well, you’re doing phenology,’” Buse said, chuckling.
Phenology as citizen science
Phenology is the study of the cyclical patterns of nature, also referred to as “nature’s calendar,” by the National Phenology Network.
Established in 2007, the goal of the network is to provide, “data and information on the timing of seasonal events in plants and animals to ensure the well-being of humans, ecosystems and natural resources,” according to its website.
By studying phenological events — like when certain plants flower or when animals begin to migrate — scientists can anticipate decisions, such as when farmers should start planting.
“Changes in phenological events like flowering and animal migration are among the most sensitive biological responses to climate change,” according to the network. “Across the world, many spring events are occurring earlier — and fall events are happening later — than they did in the past. However, not all species are changing at the same rate or direction, leading to mismatches.
“How plants and animals respond can help us predict whether their populations will grow or shrink — making phenology a ‘leading indicator’ of climate change impacts.”
This data-gathering depends on citizen scientists, like Buse, to create a network of observations. However, although Buse prefers his hand-written method, there’s been an uptick in amateur science participation over the last decade, with advocates citing the ease of cell phones as the driving force.
However, in the history of scientific study, residents have and continue to play a large role, according to the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research institute.
“French wine growers have been keeping data on harvest times since the 1300s, with such precision that scientists are now using their numbers to study climate change,” according to an article from the agency. “More recently, thousands of parents in the 1950s and '60s helped scientists track the fallout from nuclear tests by sending in their children's baby teeth to be tested for radioactive isotopes.
“Federal law now encourages agencies with scientific missions to use crowdsourcing and work with citizen scientists whenever possible. One recent study calculated that, in the field of biodiversity research alone, the work that citizen scientists put in could be worth up to $2.5 billion every year.”
There have been several opportunities recently for the Valley’s residents to get involved in scientific studies, including Lehigh Valley Breathes, a regional air quality monitoring project and the annual raptor migration count at Lehigh Gap Nature Center.
Some residents, like Buse, have taken on their own projects, like the Hellertown teen who has been testing water in Saucon Creek.
‘One of the coolest summers in 15 years’
Buse’s year starts not in January, but in the first week of March. Each day, he records the high temperature, low temperature, precipitation and any sightings of animals or birds.
Because he’s been collecting data for so many years, he can see the patterns and trends.
“This has been one of the coolest summers in 15 years,” he said. “That’s because of the smoke.”
Canadian wildfire smoke blew through the region over the summer, choking the Valley’s residents and, for a short time, giving the region the worst air quality in the nation. The long-term effects of wildfire smoke are still an area of study.
In addition to temperature changes, he’s also noticed differences in animals — like a lack of geese in the spring. He attributed this to regional planning decisions, including the sharp increase in warehouses.
“Due to environmental changes, I don't see them anymore,” he said. “We used to sit here and see thousands, but with the building of all the houses and warehouses — I might have 50.”
Forsythia is also blooming earlier by two weeks, which Buse also contributed to climate change. He’s also tracked differences in fall foliage.
“In the fall, the leaves are coming down two weeks later,” he said. “So you have gained, in 30 years, four weeks more growing period. The temperature has gone up. That's what's forcing this to come earlier.”
By observing the silver maple in his backyard, he’s also noticed the squeeze of peak fall foliage season.
“The amount of days that a tree has peak color to no leaves is decreasing,” he said. “It was 15 days, now it’s eight days, and other trees are doing the same.”
The growing season in the Valley ended a few weeks ago, when the first frost hit much of the region. Asked his prognostications for this winter, Buse said one word — bad.
“I think we're gonna have a bad winter,” Buse said. “We're gonna have more snow than other years — from my charts, I say we're due for a good one.”