Why climate change is causing UK plants to flower a month early

PLANTS are flowering a month earlier in the UK than they were a handful of decades ago, a new study has found. The report warns that this could place many species at “unprecedented risk” should the worrying trend – linked to climate change – continue.

Researchers examined more than 400,000 observations of 406 plant species, dating back to 1753, in locations from the Channel Islands to Shetland, and from Northern Ireland to Suffolk.

Since 1986, the average first flowering date has jumped forward by a full month. Herbaceous plants saw the biggest advance, producing flowers around 32 days earlier. Trees are blossoming 14 days sooner and shrubs have advanced by 10 days.

Why is it a bad thing?

The danger is that when plants move out of step with their environment, they risk food security, biodiversity loss and temperature damage.

Professor Ulf Buntgen, from the University of Cambridge and lead author of the study, said that if global temperatures continue to increase at their current rate, spring in the UK could eventually start in February.

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“The results are truly alarming, because of the ecological risks associated with earlier flowering times,” he said. “When plants flower too early, a late frost can kill them – a phenomenon that most gardeners will have experienced at some point.”

A greater risk, states the report, is “ecological mismatch”. When the development stages of plants and the insects, birds and other wildlife which rely on them are no longer in sync, this “can lead species to collapse if they can’t adapt quickly enough”.

What does that mean?

The grave impact of climate change on bee populations is well documented. Other examples include tadpoles hatching too soon and being wiped out by late cold snaps, as well as a dearth of food for great tit chicks as winter moth caterpillars hatch ever earlier.

HeraldScotland: Snowdrops are a common sight in many gardens. Picture: Martin Rickett/PA WireSnowdrops are a common sight in many gardens. Picture: Martin Rickett/PA Wire

How does it affect humans?

The findings of the study, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B journal, suggested a range of undesirable effects on everything from agricultural productivity to food availability, as well as the potential for a longer hay fever season.

What is the cause?

Three words: Rising global temperatures. The research team found this “strongly correlated” with the advancing flowering dates.

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The United Nations confirmed last month that the past seven years have been the hottest on record, with the average global temperature in 2021 measuring 1.11C above pre-industrial levels.

Urbanisation could also be a crucial contributing factor, with plants in towns and cities flowering on average five days earlier than those in rural areas.

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