Families explore Kenai Peninsula climate with new trail activities

Ranger guides kick off the new Changing Landscapes program this week. Hikes offer hands-on activities and nature exploration for all ages.

What do you get when you combine a wind meter, cloud chart, bag of crayons and children’s creativity? Visitors to the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters in Soldotna will soon find out! A mix of art, nature exploration and citizen science is hitting the trail this week through a new trail backpack program called Changing Landscapes. Changing Landscapes is a program developed by rangers at the Refuge to educate visitors about the pressures facing the Kenai Peninsula from invasive plants and animals to rising temperatures and melting glaciers through hands-on learning opportunities.


As a kick-off for this self-guided program, rangers will be leading guided walks on the Keen-Eye Trail at Refuge Headquarters today at noon and 3 p.m. The backpacks will be available to borrow starting Saturday.

How do we know about the Kenai Peninsula climate through the years? Records, both written and natural; journals, scientific notes and papers, tree rings, soil cores, all contribute to telling the story of what once happened. They offer a glimpse into the past. Modern weather stations help collect data now, at airports, universities and schools, and in our backyards.

Recently, residents sitting around the table at a local restaurant were overheard casually chatting about how this summer is unusually dry and how they don’t remember such icy winters. Have you thought something similar? This is the collective memory of our community. It is valuable, and can reveal a lot about general trends in climate noticeable in just a lifetime. Scientific data helps define our recollections in measurable terms. That icy winter is recorded in all its days of above freezing temperatures. The dry summer is measured with precipitation data.

The exciting thing about climate science is how accessible it is to everyone. Weather stations make it easy to follow trends in temperature and precipitation, but even without expensive equipment, citizen scientists around the country are collecting phenology records in their communities. Phenology is the study of the timing of annual changes in animal and plant life cycles. For example, we can track when fireweed starts to bloom, when caddis flies hatch off the Kenai River or when Black-capped Chickadees start building nests.

These records tell us about local trends in natural communities that can affect everything from how many insects will be available as food for migrating birds in the spring to how many blueberries can be found for our jams and jellies in the fall. They also help explain why the trees are being defoliated across the Peninsula this summer by recording the arrival of innumerable moths on the Peninsula in early summer (did you read about that in the Refuge Notebook article from last month?). Phenology is simply a big word for the observation of what is happening when in our backyards.

What happens when phenology records are combined from many observers across the country from many seasons is remarkable. Maps and other visualizations show shifts in flowering times, expansion of species ranges northward, and other spatial trends that suggest a warming, drying climate. Examples of these maps are available on the Nature’s Notebook website: http://www.usanpn.org/results/visualizations

Scientists on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge have been keeping phenology records for decades, and citizens like Andrew Berg kept them as diaries before that. Through the Changing Landscapes hike and Nature’s Notebook program, the next generation of nature observers can learn how to contribute to these records while having fun!

The Keen-Eye Trail at the Kenai Refuge Visitor Center in Soldotna offers a special opportunity to explore the boreal forest, wetland and lake ecosystems without a long drive from town. Many families, community groups and individuals find this headquarters trail system an easy outing, and a fun way of getting outdoors through all four seasons. Now you are invited to join the trail regulars and contribute to the national citizen science program, Nature’s Notebook. The success of this program locally relies on repeat observations.

Consider planning a seasonal hike of the trail with your family. Invite your out of town guests to explore the forest with you. Check out the Changing Landscapes backpack for all the supplies you need to be a boreal forest “expert”. The Changing Landscapes trail guide is designed for hikers of all ages and combines Nature’s Notebook data recording with hands-on activities like exploring the texture of trees, bug hunts and nature sketching.

Don’t have time for the whole activity booklet? Carry a Nature’s Notebook record page with you when you attend a Fun Day hike (there’s one coming up on August 27), snowshoe guided walk, or Monday fitness hike. More data collection means more complete results, spatial modeling, maps and visualizations of what is happening to the boreal forest, wetlands and animals of the Kenai Peninsula.

Come out to the Refuge Headquarters Visitor Center on Friday to learn how you can become a Nature’s Notebook participant and become a Climate Ranger through finishing the activities in the Changing Landscapes booklet. Pre-registration is appreciated for the guided hikes at noon and 3pm. Call Leah Eskelin for more information and to sign up for the hikes. For more information about Nature’s Notebook, check out the website at http://www.usanpn.org/participate

Leah Eskelin serves as a Visitor Services Park Ranger at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

You can find more information about the refuge at http://kenai.fws.gov or http://www.facebook.com/kenainationalwildliferefuge