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SEGA Joins National PhenoCam ‘Plant Spy Ring’ - You Can Join Too!

Bradshaw Rancj - Most Recent Phenocam Image A large national network of digital webcams are now being run from NAU. The mission - to spy on plants … at a continental scale. Andrew Richardson joined NAU from Harvard University last year – bringing with him a program that uses security cameras to watch plants grow. Called the ‘PhenoCam’ project (, the work is being funded through the National Science Foundation’s Macrosystems Biology program and NASA’s Advanced Information Systems Technology program.

 The project’s name comes from the study of phenology – which is all about timing. It’s the term scientists use to describe the seasonal rhythms of plants and animals. For example the exact timings for tree buds to swell and burst in the spring are highly responsive to how cool or warm it is, as well as the amount and timing of rainfall. These seasonal rhythms are also affected by longer-term changes in the climate. And because the timing of spring leaf-out and autumn leaf fall define the length of the growing season, that influences how much water plants use and how much carbon they store. This makes a big, complicated feedback loop to the planet’s climate as well as its hydrological and carbon cycles. The amount and condition of foliage also affects surface energy balance, albedo (reflectiveness), and surface roughness – all important variables in global climate modeling. Phenology even influences ecological competition between plants and the grazing animals that feed on them.


In fact, plant phenology is a good summary measure of how year-to-year climate variability and longer-term climate change is affecting natural systems. But there are still major knowledge gaps and uncertainties in exactly how plant growth changes operate in the feedback loop to the planet’s climate and life support systems. Richardson’s team hopes to use their PhenoCams to fill in some of those gaps.

The PhenoCam Network was originally developed to provide automated, near-surface remote sensing of the phenology of deciduous forest canopies at a handful of sites across the northeastern United States and adjacent Canada. Unlike conventional remote sensing, data from PhenoCams provides continuous imagery that’s not affected by cloud cover and doesn’t need to be corrected for atmospheric effects. Images from the cameras are uploaded to the project server every 30 minutes. These images are processed to provide a daily, canopy-level measure of vegetation greenness at a much finer spatial resolution than satellite imagery. In fact, individual trees within the camera field of view can be analyzed, to provide information about phenological differences among species. Since it was established in 2008, the network has grown rapidly and now more than 400 cameras are in place across North America, from Alaska to Florida and from Hawaii to Maine. And, instead of just focusing on forests, now subarctic tundra, tropical grasslands, Mediterranean savannahs and agricultural fields are all being tracked with PhenoCams.


Now NAU’s Southwest Experimental Garden Array is joining the PhenoCam networke.g.

This array of ten sites arranged across a large elevation gradient in Arizona includes not only forest, but chaparral, shrub and desert grassland too. SEGA’s cyber connectively with NAU campus ( will be used to transmit the data to the PhenoCam network. Existing PhenoCam coverage in the southwest is sparse, and these new sites will greatly enhance the network’s coverage of these diverse and under-represented ecosystem types.


The SEGA PhenoCams will take pairs of images, back to back. The first is a visible-wavelength image, with separate Red, Green and Blue color channels. The second image records wavelengths in the near-infrared, beyond the range of human vision. From these image pairs an index, similar to the normalized difference vegetation index (or NDVI) used in satellite remote sensing, is created using the Red and near-infrared channels. Like the greenness index that has long been used with PhenoCam imagery, the NDVI data provide information about the seasonality of plant foliage. But whereas the greenness index is sensitive to foliage color, NDVI is sensitive to foliage amount. Combining both greenness and NDVI should allow researchers to track the seasonality of both canopy health and canopy structure. Over the long term this data will yield valuable information about the phenology of vegetation in the southwest. It will be used to work out exactly how day length, temperature, and precipitation govern plant growth stage transitions in different vegetation types at different scales. From this information, simulation models can be developed to predict how plant phenology will respond to rising temperatures and changing precipitation regimes.

From Richardson’s perspective, the timing of this new collaboration is ideal, as his most recent NSF grant has an explicit focus on phenology in the southwest. The data from this newly expanded PhenoCam network will be linked to observations by airborne and satellite sensors, with interdisciplinary collaboration between teams with expertise in biometeorology, process modeling, remote sensing, and climate modeling. A key focus of this research is to understand how phenology controls interactions and feedbacks between vegetation and the atmosphere. Additional partners in this project include the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), the USA National Phenology Network (USA-NPN), and researchers from New Hampshire, Boston and Cornell Universities, as well as the United States Geological Survey (USGS).


But the research is not just for large institutions. PhenoCam images can be viewed by armchair travelers to see what the landscape looks like in any given spot on the continent—when the aspen leaves are emerging in Flagstaff, or when snow arrives at sites on the North Rim for example.


And you can join the PhenoCam network too! The project is actively seeking new collaborators. Membership is free and relatively straightforward. All you need is;

one of the standard recommended cameras (StarDot NetCam SC 5.0 IR)

to be able to configure and deploy it according to the project’s protocol, and

 -  fill out the site survey to provide important base information about your site

If you do - then project researchers will archive the data, process it, as well as make imagery and data products available through the project’s web page. And you’ll become the newest member of this ‘digital plant spying ring’ – helping to collect valuable data for research on our planet and its changing climate.

 Access the national PhenoCam network here:



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