Researchers Search for Climate Clues in W.Va.

Oct 13, 2015

Researchers at West Virginia University are looking for clues about West Virginia's climate history -- by combing through old journals of naturalists who spent time in the state's forests and hills.


Lori Petrauski is a WVU  grad student from Minnesota who is starting this phenology project for West Virginians.

“I became interested in how to connect citizens and just normal people to nature,” Petrauski said.

Phenology, she says, is  one easy way to do that.

Phenology: the study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena, especially in relation to climate and plant & animal life (e.g., noticing when the first migrating songbirds arrive in springtime)

Climate Clues

Today Petrauski is pouring through old journals of West Virginians as she compiles a baseline database of historical phenology in the state. It’s the start of a ten-year effort to create a resource for students and citizens. The goal is ultimately to allow West Virginians to better know the rhythms of the “wild and wonderful” part of West Virginia.

In cooperation with WVU’s Natural History Museum, the university's Wildlife and Fisheries Department is putting out calls to citizens with any kind of historical records of timings of biological events.

“Especially helpful are journals from nature-minded citizens," Petrauski said. "So people who would be out in the woods a lot and write down what they saw.”

George Breiding

George Breiding later in life, always with binoculars, pencil, and paper at the ready. His daily notes about the world around him have become a source of data for climate researchers at West Virginia University.
Credit courtesy of Mike Breiding

One such journaler who has provided a plethora of data for Lori and her team is George Breiding, of Wheeling. Born in 1917, Mr. Breiding was an avid birder and for years was the Director of Nature Education and the staff naturalist at Oglebay Park. He passed away several years ago but during his adult life he made lists of the birds he saw every day of his life right up until the day he died.

“It was like breathing to him. He never went out of the house without a notebook and pencil. And he rarely went out of the house without binoculars," said Mr. Breiding's son, Mike. "I’m sure he would have felt naked without them.”

“Prolific birders like that were really helpful for us because we could see the first day that he saw this bird must have been the first day that it migrated up to Oglebay Park because we know that he was out every day looking for birds,” Lori explained.

Data is gathered from:

  • Journals
  • Naturalist groups’ records (e.g., The Brooks Bird Club)
  • Herbariums (i.e., collections of pressed plants)
  • Historical Climate Network t - 14 different observation stations through the state

The project as a whole will collect as much data as possible in the coming decade so that West Virginians have a solid base of knowledge to pull from, add to, and Lori hopes, an extra excuse to get outside and notice the world around them.