UCO professor seeks data for ‘supercomputer’ models of future climate

On the third floor of Howell Hall, in an office lined with stacks of books and papers, with a mushroom calendar on the wall featuring the humble Morel as April’s mushroom, a botanist in hiking boots sat at her desk. 

“I submitted a grant to start looking at flowering times for a specific set of plants, because plants are one way we can measure what’s going on in the climate, right, they’re one of the first things that will respond,” said Jennifer Messick, professor of plant taxonomy at UCO. 

This data will be put into a “supercomputer” at UCO to predict possible future climate variations and see future weather patterns, Messick said. This process has already begun.

“We have these massive historical data sets that are not being used,” Messick said, “in the form of smashed dried dead plants stored in all the herbaria across the country.”

In Oklahoma, said Messick, collection and storage of plant specimens has been “going on since the late 1800s.”

“With a herbarium specimen, it’s just like a snapshot of what that plant was doing the day it was pulled out of the ground and smashed and dried up and later on glued onto a piece of paper,” Messick said. 

“In 2010, the National Science Foundation put a call out that they had set aside money to digitize all these plant specimens,” she said. This was the grant she applied for.

Oklahoma and Texas were last, Messick said. This digitization began at UCO’s herbarium only three weeks ago. 

While the project was supposed to begin two years ago, “COVID delayed getting the equipment out of China, delayed the actual digitizing equipment, computer manufacturers slowed down because of microchip shortages,” she said. “Most of the other herbaria across the country minus Oklahoma and Texas had been digitized by 2019. And so then all these images are going into a public repository.” 

Today, researchers can “just search for species and pull up a few specimen images, if it’s like a rare plant, but if it’s a super common plant, like tens of thousands of images,” she said. 

“On a herbarium specimen, you have your plant glued to the paper, but there’s an herbarium label in the bottom corner, that’s got tons of information,” Messick said, such as the date of collection, location of where the plant came from, and “depending on the quality of the location information, we can assign a point on a map to where that plant was found.”

Now, she said, it can be as easy as a snap of a picture on your phone to determine the location of where a plant was collected with precise GPS coordinates. 

“We’re talking about across the country, millions and millions of specimens that have just recently been digitized, they’re being made available,” Messick said. 

“Our country has been collecting climate data since 1895, at least monthly,” Messick said, and as technology improves, that data becomes daily. Today, Oklahoma’s Mesonet collects weather data every five minutes. 

“So we have all these different ways to get all this climate data. And you can take that climate data from all these sources and map it, so now you can start putting together flowering time, and that exact climate data, so we can get that kind of a picture of what kind of climate risk variables the plants could be responding to,” she said.

“Because we’ve got temperature, we’ve got precipitation data, we even have soil moisture data, soil temperature data, how much water could potentially evaporate out of the soil type data, we have all kinds of cool stuff that we can start coupling these things together,” Messick said.

As the study of climate came into the picture, scientists began creating models with the goal of predicting what the climate would look like in the future.

“If you look at all of those future prediction models, they started making those in the late 1990s, early 2000s,” Messick said, their first predictions were for 2021. After that, the models “go forward in 20 year and sometimes 30 year increments.”

Messick explained bioblitzes, in which “a whole bunch of people get together and inventory all the biological life in an area, and there would be hundreds of people who get together and go to a state park,” but as COVID hit, these blitzes could no longer be conducted safely.

iNaturalist is an app, described as “a community for naturalists,” where researchers, biologists and citizen scientists come together to identify plants, animals, and mushrooms, as well as much more. Their website can be found at https://www.inaturalist.org

In 2020, “all my colleagues down in Norman, that set up all the bioblitzes for Oklahoma, they’re like, let’s do it on iNaturalist and open it up to the whole state rather than just one area. And it was a huge success, it was like nearly 30,000 observations for the very first virtual bioblitz, which resulted in finding a new plant species,” Messick said.

“In 2021, tons more observations are getting out, because lots of places around the country started doing the virtual bioblitzes. That’s the first year with the predicted climate change models. So essentially, we can take historical flowering data, get ideas of the patterns and variability in the patterns for flowering over from, say, 1900 to 2020. And we can predict into the future with that. And then we can test it with essentially real time data,” Messick said.

Messick described how “this has been a pet project boiling and bubbling and percolating in the back of my mind for several years now. And the holdup has been technology. And technology has caught up with my idea,” she said.

“Everybody has to do their part, it’s not just caring about one thing. It’s like, we all have to kind of pitch in as much as possible, so that maybe we can make a difference,” said Messick. 

“If everybody can do just a little thing, it’ll all start adding up, and just, you know, be positive and spread the word about different ways to actually help. Because just in my lifetime, I’ve seen so many changes. Like when I was really little growing up, we used to dig tunnels in the snow in the backyard. And that’s how deep the snow would get. And that was just by Tulsa,” Messick said.

She continued.

“That was in the 1980s. And now, we’re lucky if we get any snow. And if it does snow, sometimes it’s like a lot, but not three or four feet. So there’s a lot of this. I’ve seen a lot of changes. Springs have definitely gotten warmer, because I’ve been out in the field most springs for a while now looking at what are the trees doing, what are the plants doing? And then, now that I’ve been up here, and I’m teaching the plant taxonomy class, every spring was like, drawn on my knowledge of here’s the order of spring, right? But the last two springs, the order is off. And it’s messing with my flow,” Messick said. 

“We’ve gone on several field trips, outside of, you know, off campus, and normally about mid to late March. For the last decade or so the oak trees have been flowered. I don’t know if you’ve looked at the oak trees this year. They just started flowering last week,” Messick said, “So they’re later than normal.”

She said that at a class trip to Lake Arcadia the week prior, “the ash trees had already started leafing out. And normally ash trees are very last.”

“It’s like, there’s some changing of the order going on, which is very weird to me, right? Especially since I’ve spent so many springs outside looking at the order,” Messick said, whether for research as an undergraduate, to her master’s, or her dissertation, and now, teaching at UCO.

We visited the Herbarium on the first floor, with rows of tall steel cabinets, home to a collection of plants, lichens, and mushrooms. Messick explained that before specimens go into the herbarium, they are pressed in plant presses and carefully heated in a special cabinet to accelerate drying. Then each specimen is glued onto special paper and labeled with its scientific name, date, and location, as well as occasional other information. After this, they are frozen for a week to kill any pests. Then the specimens are ready for herbarium storage.

A tall camera and lightbox were set up on the far end of the room next to a stack of specimens ready to be digitized.

Some specimens were tiny, an entire plant barely two inches long, whereas others had to be bent to fit onto the paper. Some were partial specimens, broken off at the stem, but most were complete, from the roots to all aerial parts. 

Messick said it was better to collect flowered specimens on plants that have flowers, as these are easier to identify and show a more complete picture. The general rule for common plants, she said, is that collecting one specimen is allowed if there is a population of 20 individuals at one given site.

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