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Three decades of multi-dimensional change in global leaf phenology

Nature Climate Change volume 5, pages 364368 (2015) | Download Citation

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Abstract

Changes in the phenology of vegetation activity may accelerate or dampen rates of climate change by altering energy exchanges between the land surface and the atmosphere1,2 and can threaten species with synchronized life cycles3,4,5. Current knowledge of long-term changes in vegetation activity is regional6,7,8, or restricted to highly integrated measures of change such as net primary productivity9,10,11,12,13, which mask details that are relevant for Earth system dynamics. Such details can be revealed by measuring changes in the phenology of vegetation activity. Here we undertake a comprehensive global assessment of changes in vegetation phenology. We show that the phenology of vegetation activity changed severely (by more than 2 standard deviations in one or more dimensions of phenological change) on 54% of the global land surface between 1981 and 2012. Our analysis confirms previously detected changes in the boreal and northern temperate regions6,7,8. The adverse consequences of these northern phenological shifts for land-surface–climate feedbacks1, ecosystems4 and species3 are well known. Our study reveals equally severe phenological changes in the southern hemisphere, where consequences for the energy budget and the likelihood of phenological mismatches are unknown. Our analysis provides a sensitive and direct measurement of ecosystem functioning, making it useful both for monitoring change and for testing the reliability of early warning signals of change14.

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Acknowledgements

This work was funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft. We thank the GIMMS group for making data available, Forschungsgemeinschaft Frankfurt Cloud for providing computer resources, and the University of Otago for hosting R.B.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Institut für Physische Geographie, Goethe Universität Frankfurt am Main, Altenhöferallee 1, 60438 Frankfurt am Main, Germany

    • Robert Buitenwerf
    •  & Laura Rose
  2. University of Freiburg, Faculty of Biology, Geobotany, Schaenzlestr. 1, D-79104 Freiburg, Germany

    • Laura Rose
  3. Department of Botany, University of Otago, PO Box 56, Dunedin 9054, New Zealand

    • Steven I. Higgins
  4. Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre (BiK-F), Senckenberg Gesellschaft für Naturforschung, Senckenberganlage 25, 60325 Frankfurt am Main, Germany

    • Steven I. Higgins

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Contributions

R.B. and S.I.H. designed the study and data analyses. R.B. performed the analyses with assistance from L.R. R.B. wrote the manuscript with assistance from S.I.H. All authors discussed and commented on the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Robert Buitenwerf.

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DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2533

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