That’s the conclusion of an analysis of 50 plant studies on four continents, published this week in an advance online issue of the journal Nature, which found that shifts in the timing of flowering and leafing in plants due to global warming appear to be much greater than estimated by warming experiments.
“This suggests that predicted ecosystem changes—including continuing advances in the start of spring across much of the globe—may be far greater than current estimates based on data from experiments,” said Elizabeth Wolkovich, an ecologist at the University of British Columbia who led an interdisciplinary team of scientists that conducted the study while she was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, San Diego.
“These findings have extensive consequences for predictions of species diversity, ecosystem services and global models of future change,” said Elsa Cleland, an assistant professor of biology at UC San Diego and senior author of the study, which involved 22 institutions in Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, the U.K. and the U.S. “Long-term records appear to be converging on a consistent average response to climate change, but future plant and ecosystem responses to warming may be much higher than previously estimated from experimental data.”
Predicting plant responses to climate change has important consequences for human water supply, pollination of crops and the overall health of ecosystems. Shifts in the timing of annual plant events—which biologists call “phenology”—are some of the most consistent and visible responses to climate change.Long-term historical records show that many plant species have shifted their leafing and flowering earlier, in step with warming temperatures over recent decades. Because historical records are not available in most locations and climate change may produce temperatures higher than previously recorded, however, ecologists often rely on experiments that warm small field plots to estimate plant responses to temperature and project future conditions.
“These results are important because we rely heavily on these experiments to predict what will happen to communities and ecosystems in the future,” said Ben Cook, a climatologist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Columbia University, who helped bring together the research team.
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