Dr. Mark Schwartz

Dr. Mark Schwartz among
cloned lilacs

Mark D. Schwartz grew up in an agricultural area of Michigan, where his early interest in weather led to part-time work in radio during high school and college, and consideration of a career in broadcast meteorology (i.e., a "TV weatherman"). However, by the time he had completed his bachelor's degree it was clear that the need for frequent moves, and lack of security that are part of that field, did not fit well with his aspirations. Thus, after as short period of reflection, Mark decided to pursue a career involving research in weather and climate.

During a fateful day in 1983 he was discussing possible topics of research when his advisor mentioned that phenology (the study of plant and animal life cycle events driven by seasonal changes in weather and climate) might be an interesting area that offered many future options. "What's that?" he recalls asking, little realizing at the time that this was to become his life's work. During subsequent planning for his doctoral dissertation, Mark quickly discovered that there were few datasets available that were suitable to explore the relationship between phenology and climate over large areas, such as the North American continent. However, he happened upon a data set of cloned lilac observations, which had been collected all across eastern North America, starting in 1961. Lilacs had been chosen for this project because they are widely distributed, have easy to observe growth stages, and by using cloned (genetically identical) plants, their response to the environment (mostly warmer spring temperatures) were largely the same, thus providing a standard way of measuring the start of the growing season in different locations, and any changes occurring over time at individual locations.

Thus, cloned lilac observations, and models developed from them have proven invaluable in tracking important changes in temperature patterns around the world related to the start of the growing season, tracking the differences among satellite views of plant development and native species observations made on the ground, and even the influences of springtime greening on the amount of moisture present in the lower part of atmosphere. Recalling back to his youth, Mark remembers while growing up that each spring was eagerly anticipated, since it brought special foods such as asparagus, rhubarb pie, and morel mushrooms, as well as the welcome sights and smells of beautiful flowers, such as the lilac. Through springtime phenological observations, all are welcome to join in this wonderfully enjoyable endeavor, while also providing useful data to better understand our changing environment.