Plant phenology is a sensitive indicator of climate change1,2,3,4 and plays an important role in regulating carbon uptake by plants5,6,7. Previous studies have focused on spring leaf-out by daytime temperature and the onset of snow-melt time8,9, but the drivers controlling leaf senescence date (LSD) in autumn remain largely unknown10,11,12. Using long-term ground phenological records (14,536 time series since the 1900s) and satellite greenness observations dating back to the 1980s, we show that rising pre-season maximum daytime (Tday) and minimum night-time (Tnight) temperatures had contrasting effects on the timing of autumn LSD in the Northern Hemisphere (> 20° N). If higher Tday leads to an earlier or later LSD, an increase in Tnight systematically drives LSD to occur oppositely. Contrasting impacts of daytime and night-time warming on drought stress may be the underlying mechanism. Our LSD model considering these opposite effects improved autumn phenology modelling and predicted an overall earlier autumn LSD by the end of this century compared with traditional projections. These results challenge the notion of prolonged growth under higher autumn temperatures, suggesting instead that leaf senescence in the Northern Hemisphere will begin earlier than currently expected, causing a positive climate feedback.

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The data that support the findings of this study are available from the corresponding author upon request.

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Change history

  • 09 January 2019

    In the version of this Letter originally published, there were errors in Fig. 1a. The sites denoted purple were described in the legend as ‘Pday>0.05 & Pnight>0.05’, but should have been labelled ‘Pday<0.05 & Pnight>0.05’. The sites denoted green were described in the legend as ‘Pday>0.05 & Pnight>0.05’, but should have been labelled ‘Pday>0.05 & Pnight<0.05’. The sites denoted orange were described in the legend as ‘Pday>0.05 & Pnight>0.05’, but should have been labelled ‘Pday<0.05 & Pnight<0.05’. These errors have now been corrected.

  • 06 December 2018

    In the version of this Letter originally published, the author Andrew T. Black was mistakenly denoted as being affiliated with the Institute of Geographical Sciences and Natural Resources Research. His affiliation has now been corrected to: Faculty of Land and Food Systems, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.


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This work was funded by the Strategic Priority Research Program of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (XDA19040103), International Cooperation and Exchange Programs of National Science Foundation of China (Sino-German, 41761134082), National Natural Science Foundation of China (41522109) and the Key Research Program of Frontier Sciences, CAS (QYZDB-SSW-DQC011). J.P. and P.C. were funded by European Research Council Synergy grant ERC-SyG-2013-610028 IMBALANCE-P. A.R.D. acknowledges support from the Ned P. Smith Professorship of Climatology, University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Author information


  1. The Key Laboratory of Land Surface Pattern and Simulation, Institute of Geographical Sciences and Natural Resources Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, China

    • Chaoyang Wu
    • , Xiaoyue Wang
    • , Huanjiong Wang
    •  & Quansheng Ge
  2. University of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, China

    • Chaoyang Wu
    • , Xiaoyue Wang
    • , Huanjiong Wang
    •  & Quansheng Ge
  3. Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat et de l’Environnement, IPSL-LSCE CEA CNRS UVSQ, Gif-sur-Yvette, France

    • Philippe Ciais
  4. CSIC, Global Ecology Unit CREAF-CSIC-UAB, Barcelona, Spain

    • Josep Peñuelas
  5. CREAF, Barcelona, Spain

    • Josep Peñuelas
  6. Department of Earth and Environment, Boston University, Boston, MA, USA

    • Ranga B. Myneni
  7. Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, University of Wisconsin–Madison, Madison, WI, USA

    • Ankur R. Desai
  8. Department of Biology, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA, USA

    • Christopher M. Gough
  9. Department of Geography and Planning, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

    • Alemu Gonsamo
    •  & Jing M. Chen
  10. Faculty of Land and Food Systems, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

    • Andrew T. Black
    •  & Rachhpal S. Jassal
  11. International Institute for Earth System Science, Nanjing University, Nanjing, China

    • Weimin Ju
  12. School of Atmospheric Sciences, Center for Monsoon and Environment Research, Sun Yat-Sen University, Guangzhou, China

    • Wenping Yuan
  13. College of Water Sciences, Beijing Normal University, Beijing, China

    • Yongshuo Fu
  14. CAS Center for Excellence in Tibetan Plateau Earth Sciences, Beijing, China

    • Miaogen Shen
  15. School of Resources and Environment, University of Electronic Science and Technology of China, Chengdu, China

    • Shihua Li
  16. State Key Laboratory of Resources and Environmental Information System, Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, CAS, Beijing, China

    • Ronggao Liu


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C.W., H.W. and Q.G. designed the research. C.W. wrote the first draft of the paper. J.P. and P.C. extensively revised the writing. H.W. performed the site model simulations. X.W. performed remote-sensing model simulations. All the authors contributed to writing the paper.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Chaoyang Wu or Huanjiong Wang or Quansheng Ge.

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  1. Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Figures 1–21, Supplementary Tables 13

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