The Impacts Of Climate Change Can Be Seen In Plants Budding Around You

May 29, 2020

Spring is in full swing, so many plants and trees are beginning to bloom. Research shows that blooming trends are being impacted by climate change.

Mark Schwartz, a UW-Milwaukee distinguished professor of geography, is one of the researchers digging into those trends.

"My research has been focusing on the beginning and to some degree now the end of the growing season. It has really come from a very long-term realization that there was this interaction between the atmosphere and biological activity, particularly plants,” Schwartz says.

The foundation of Schwartz’s work is phenology. Think of it like nature's calendar — the annual cycle of animals and plants. Phenology dates back nearly three centuries, but Schwartz has the advantage of more sophisticated tools, like satellite data. He says those tools are pointing to real change.

"We look at the satellite data and we see the changes there, we look at the temperature data and we see the changes there, and then we can tie this all to visible changes in plants,” Schwartz says.

Across the Northern Hemisphere, spring is now arriving five to six days earlier  than during the 1950s. The most dramatic shift happened in the mid-1980s.

Schwartz launched a collaboration this year with UWM distinguished professor of atmospheric science Paul Roebber to dig deeper.

“These long-term effects are apparent in Mark’s research and other people who look at that, but no one has really looked at what the impact on short-term [weather] forecasting might [be],” Roebber says.

READ: New Database Helps Scientists Track Climate Change Over Thousands Of Years

To find out, Roebber provided Schwartz with forecasting data, which he will compare to vegetation monitoring underway at several hundred field stations across the central and eastern United States.

"I think there’s no question that the vegetation is causing a change. I think the question is: is the change large enough to make a difference for a forecaster in an operational sense? So, that’s [the] ultimate pursuit of this, that will take a bit of time to get to,” Schwartz says.

Both Roebber and Schwartz hope as they and fellow scientists continue to fine-tune their capacity to predict and model our changing climate, people – private citizens to policymakers – take note.

The USA National Phenology Network has amassed a treasure trove of data, including maps and data tracking changes in spring. Schwartz suggests people also step outside to observe what’s growing in their own yards and neighborhoods.

"It’s a way for people to be connected with this, and it’s also a way for them to realize that these changes aren’t just some theoretical thing, that they’re actually happening. And also to understand how complicated it is, how variable it is from year to year,” Schwartz says.

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