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Leaf senescence exhibits stronger climatic responses during warm than during cold autumns


A warmer world could extend the growing seasons for plants. Changes in spring phenology have been studied, yet autumn phenology remains poorly understood. Using >500,000 phenological records of four temperate tree species between 1951 and 2013 in Europe, we show that leaf senescence in warm autumns exhibits stronger climate responses, with a higher phenological plasticity, than in cold autumns, indicating a nonlinear response to climate. The onset of leaf senescence in warm autumns was delayed due to the stronger climate response, primarily caused by night-time warming. However, daytime warming, especially during warm autumns, imposes a drought stress which advances leaf senescence. This may counteract the extension of growing season under global warming. These findings provide guidance for more reliable predictions of plant phenology and biosphere–atmosphere feedbacks in the context of global warming.

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Fig. 1: Climatic responses of leaf senescence of four temperate tree species in Europe during 1951–2013.
Fig. 2: Coefficient of variation of the leaf senescence onset day of four temperate tree species in Europe during 1951–2013.
Fig. 3: Average leaf senescence dates of four temperate tree species at different phenological observation site groups in Europe during 1951–2013.
Fig. 4: Growing degree days at different site groups in Europe during 1951–2013.
Fig. 5: Climatic responses of leaf senescence of four temperate tree species in Europe during 1951–2013.

Data availability

Phenology data are available from the Pan European Phenology (PEP) network ( Climate data can be downloaded from E-OBS site:

Code availability

The codes used for data processing and analysis in this study are available on Figshare at


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We acknowledge all members of the PEP725 network for collecting and providing the phenological data. We acknowledge the CESM-LENS Project and supercomputing resources provided by NSF/CISL/Yellowstone. This research was supported by the Strategic Priority Research Program of Chinese Academy of Sciences grant no. XDB31010300), the National Key Research and Development Program of China grant no. 2017YFC0505203, National Natural Science Foundation of China grant nos. 31590821 and 315611230010, the Starting Research Fund from Sichuan University grant no. 1082204112291 and the Fundamental Research Funds for the Central Universities of China grant no. SCU2019D013.

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Authors and Affiliations



L.C., J.L. and Z.L. designed this research. L.C. and Z.L. performed the data analysis. L.C. drafted the paper with the inputs of H.H., S. R., N.G.S., Z.L., S.P., G.F., J.G. and J.L. All authors contributed to the interpretation of the results and approved the final manuscript.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Lei Chen, Zhiyong Liu or Jianquan Liu.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Peer review information Nature Climate Change thanks Bijan Seyednasrollah and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Chen, L., Hänninen, H., Rossi, S. et al. Leaf senescence exhibits stronger climatic responses during warm than during cold autumns. Nat. Clim. Chang. 10, 777–780 (2020).

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