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UK plants flowering a month earlier due to climate change - University of Cambridge

Climate change is causing plants in the UK to flower a month earlier on average, which could have profound consequences for wildlife, agriculture and gardeners.

Using a citizen science database with records going back to the mid-18th century, a research team led by the University of Cambridge has found that the effects of climate change are causing plants in the UK to flower one month earlier under recent global warming.

Crab apple tree in bloom. Credit: Ulf Büntgen / Copyright ©University of Cambridge
Crab apple tree in bloom. Credit: Ulf Büntgen / Copyright ©University of Cambridge

The researchers based their analysis on more than 400,000 observations of 406 plant species from Nature’s Calendar, maintained by the Woodland Trust, and collated the first flowering dates with instrumental temperature measurements.

They found that the average first flowering date from 1987 to 2019 is a full month earlier than the average first flowering date from 1753 to 1986. The same period coincides with accelerating global warming caused by human activities. The results are reported in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

While the first spring flowers are always a welcome sight, this earlier flowering can have consequences for the UK’s ecosystems and agriculture. Other species that synchronise their migration or hibernation can be left without the flowers and plants they rely on – a phenomenon known as ecological mismatch – which can lead to biodiversity loss if populations cannot adapt quickly enough.

The change can also have consequences for farmers and gardeners. If fruit trees, for example, flower early following a mild winter, entire crops can be killed off if the blossoms are then hit by a late frost.

While we can see the effects of climate change through extreme weather events and increasing climate variability, the long-term effects of climate change on ecosystems are more subtle and are therefore difficult to recognise and quantify.

“We can use a wide range of environmental datasets to see how climate change is affecting different species, but most records we have only consider one or a handful of species in a relatively small area,” said Professor Ulf Büntgen from Cambridge’s Department of Geography, the study’s lead author. “To really understand what climate change is doing to our world, we need much larger datasets that look at whole ecosystems over a long period of time.”

The UK has such a dataset: since the 18th century, observations of seasonal change have been recorded by scientists, naturalists, amateur and professional gardeners, as well as organisations such as the Royal Meteorological Society. In 2000, the Woodland Trust joined forced with the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology and collated these records into Nature’s Calendar, which currently has around 3.5 million records going back to 1736.


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Posted On: 02/02/2022

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