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British plants are now flowering a month earlier

Using citizen science data stretching back as far as the mid 18th century, a research team led by the University of Cambridge found that plants in the UK are flowering a month earlier due to a warming climate.  

“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 study lead author Professor Ulf Büntgen.

“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 researchers analyzed 400,000 observations of 406 plant species in Nature’s Calendar, a database maintained by Woodland Trust. The flowering times were compared with temperatures, and the observations were categorized based on elevation and location.

“Anyone in the UK can submit a record to Nature’s Calendar, by logging their observations of plants and wildlife,” said Professor Büntgen. “It’s an incredibly rich and varied data source, and alongside temperature records, we can use it to quantify how climate change is affecting the functioning of various ecosystem components across the UK.”

The results showed a picture of drastic change. When compared to the time when the first blooms emerged each year from 1753 to 1986, plants were flowering a month later from 1987 to 2019.

“The results are truly alarming, because of the ecological risks associated with earlier flowering times,” said Professor Büntgen. “When plants flower too early, a late frost can kill them – a phenomenon that most gardeners will have experienced at some point. But the even bigger risk is ecological mismatch. Plants, insects, birds and other wildlife have co-evolved to a point that they’re synchronised in their development stages.” 

“A certain plant flowers, it attracts a particular type of insect, which attracts a particular type of bird, and so on. But if one component responds faster than the others, there’s a risk that they’ll be out of synch, which can lead species to collapse if they can’t adapt quickly enough.”

The study is published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B Biological Sciences.

By Zach Fitzner, Staff Writer

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