Vital Nature: Climate change and flowers

1412944_yellow_flowersOn our side of the U.S., most of us are cranking up the heat and layering up in response to the frosty outdoors, but for many plants in the eastern parts of the nation, spring is sprouting all too soon.

An article published on Jan. 16 in the Public Library of Science One by a team of researchers from Boston University, Harvard University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison demonstrated that native plants in the eastern United States are flowering as much as a month earlier than what used to be natural in response to a warming climate. The article attests to the correlation of the hypothesis regarding the sped-up phenology of eastern plants to their results within the past few years. They found a significant relationship between higher average spring temperatures and earlier flower blooms. These higher temperatures are no doubt a historically notable result of human-induced climate change.

Charles Davis, professor of organic and evolutionary biology at Harvard and the study’s senior author, conducted this experiment with his colleagues where they compared data sets collected in 2010 and 2012 to compare with those of Henry Thoreau, poet and philosopher of the mid 1800s, who documented flowering times across Concord, Mass. Plants such as the serviceberry and nodding trillium have been blooming an average of 11 days earlier in and around Concord.

“These historical records provide a snapshot in time and a baseline of sorts against which we can compare more recent records from the period in which climate change has accelerated,” explains Stan Temple, a co-author of the study and a retired UW-Madison professor of wildlife ecology.

This study has allowed a new wave of perspective throughout the scientific community as well the general public because it hints towards the unnerving ecological change that might pan out in front of us. The work may also assist in predicting climate change’s effects on important flowering agricultural crops, which could in turn wind up having detrimental effects on massive amounts of people.

Importantly, the results have given scientists a peek at the subtleties of ecological change in response to climate change. The flowering of native plants is a harbinger for spring in the world’s temperate regions, and acts as a signal that spring has sprung. Changes in this timing and mechanism have vast implications for dependent animals and insects alike.

Back in his own time, Aldo Leopold, who gathered flowering data in southern Wisconsin with his students between 1935 and 1945, had not a hint that their observations would indubitably assist in our modern understanding of human-caused climate change and its effects. But it is indeed a collaborative effort to comprehend the world around us and past events as a whole, so that we might ease ourselves into what is to come.

For us, what is left to do is reduce our own carbon footprint, therefore slowing climatic alteration. We might also keep our eyes open for change on this side of the nation, remembering that any person’s observations may prove vital to scientific calculations.