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Warming experiments underpredict plant phenological responses to climate change

— sector: Agriculture
— theme: Environment and climate
— country: Global
— type: Studies

The results of a recent study comparing experimental and observational data of the effects of global warming on plant flowering and leafing shows that experiments have underestimated the impact of warming. This information could help inform climate adaptation measures in the agricultural sector.

Warming experiments underpredict plant phenological responses to climate change

The map covers 14 long-term observational phenology studies and 36 experimental phenology studies (one experimental study site, in Australia, is not shown)

E. M. Wolkovich et al.
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Warming experiments are increasingly relied on to estimate plant responses to global climate change1, 2. For experiments to provide meaningful predictions of future responses, they should reflect the empirical record of responses to temperature variability and recent warming, including advances in the timing of flowering and leafing3, 4, 5. We compared phenology (the timing of recurring life history events) in observational studies and warming experiments spanning four continents and 1,634 plant species using a common measure of temperature sensitivity (change in days per degree Celsius). We show that warming experiments underpredict advances in the timing of flowering and leafing by 8.5-fold and 4.0-fold, respectively, compared with long-term observations. For species that were common to both study types, the experimental results did not match the observational data in sign or magnitude. The observational data also showed that species that flower earliest in the spring have the highest temperature sensitivities, but this trend was not reflected in the experimental data. These significant mismatches seem to be unrelated to the study length or to the degree of manipulated warming in experiments. The discrepancy between experiments and observations, however, could arise from complex interactions among multiple drivers in the observational data, or it could arise from remediable artefacts in the experiments that result in lower irradiance and drier soils, thus dampening the phenological responses to manipulated warming. Our results introduce uncertainty into ecosystem models that are informed solely by experiments and suggest that responses to climate change that are predicted using such models should be re-evaluated.

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