Experiments Underestimate Plant Responses to Global Warming

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Studies designed to predict how plants and trees will react to rising temperatures have consistently underestimated those responses, with the actual flowering and leafing of plants advancing far more rapidly than most experiments forecast.

That is the conclusion of new research by Canadian and U.S. scientists who analyzed 50 plant studies on four continents. By looking at field records of the timing of plant events, the researchers found that leafing and flowering advance by nearly a week for every 1 degree C rise in temperature.

But when scientists create experimental plots and heat them to simulate future temperature increases, their predictions usually under-predict plant responses to global warming by at least four-fold, according to the study, published in an online issue of Nature.

The timing of annual plant events, known as phenology, has major implications for crop pollination, water supplies, and ecosystem health. The researchers said that plant experiments need to be better designed to reflect the actual impact of future warming.

“These results are important because we rely heavily on these experiments to predict what will happen to communities and ecosystems in the future,” said NASA climatologist Ben Cook, who took part in the study.

Article appearing courtesy Yale Environment 360.

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Yale Environment 360 is an online magazine offering opinion, analysis, reporting and debate on global environmental issues. We feature original articles by scientists, journalists, environmentalists, academics, policy makers, and business people, as well as multimedia content and a daily digest of major environmental news. Yale Environment 360 is published by the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and Yale University. We are funded in part by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The opinions and views expressed in Yale Environment 360 are those of the authors and not of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies or of Yale University.

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