Spring is sproinging earlier than we thought

ResearchBlogging.orgClimate change is speeding up the timing of plants growing & flowering. It’s an old trope we’re all used to hearing by now. Spring warms up earlier, and plants shift their timing – their phenology. This shift in phenology is going to have big consequences for things like agricultural production, the ability for wildlife to find food, the ski season, etc. Important, right? Something we might want to predict. So, we’ve been running experiments for years, looking at climate change scenarios, and finding out how much earlier plants will do their thing, and we’ve gotten some pretty good results.

Or have we.

New work published online in Nature by Lizzie Wolkovich and colleagues (go-go NCEAS working group headed by a former postdoc!) shows that…ah, hell, I think I can summarize it with their figure 2.

Results from a meta-analysis showing sensitivity to warming in experiments and what we've observed. Panel a shows all plant species, b is just those that are in both the observed and experimental data sets.

Basically, after collecting an enormous database of changes in leafing and flowering times in both experiments and what has been observed out in the world, we’ve found that experiments UNDERPREDICT how sensitive plants are to climate change.

That’s right. Something has moved these plants to leaf and flower ever EARLIER than predicted. Climate change’s effects on plans are even STRONGER than we’d predict from simple warming experiments.

To me, this suggests a whole lot of interesting directions – why are things moving even earlier? What indirect effects is warming having on the Natural world that might speed up plant timing? What crazy interactions are there that we’re missing when we try and isolate out just one signal of climate change?

It’s a little disheartening – we canot predict climate impacts on Life on Earth from changes in one or two simple variables – and a little scary – we have only begun to understand the impacts of climate change. But I think it’s fascinating in that it suggests we really need to understand the how the complex system of nature is going to be affected by climate change to alter even the most basic properties of the world around us.

Wolkovich, E., Cook, B., Allen, J., Crimmins, T., Betancourt, J., Travers, S., Pau, S., Regetz, J., Davies, T., Kraft, N., Ault, T., Bolmgren, K., Mazer, S., McCabe, G., McGill, B., Parmesan, C., Salamin, N., Schwartz, M., & Cleland, E. (2012). Warming experiments underpredict plant phenological responses to climate change Nature DOI: 10.1038/nature11014

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