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Decreasing rainfall frequency contributes to earlier leaf onset in northern ecosystems

Abstract

Climate change substantially advances the leaf onset date (LOD) and regulates carbon uptake by plants. Unlike temperature, the effect of precipitation remains largely elusive. Here we use carbon-flux measurements, in situ records of leaf unfolding and satellite greenness observations to examine the role of precipitation frequency (Pfreq, number of rainy days) in controlling the LOD in northern ecosystems (>30° N). Widespread decreases in Pfreq during the past three decades positively contributed to the advance in LOD, possibly due to increased exposure to radiation, exhibiting a dominant control of LOD over ~10% of the area. Lower Pfreq may also enhance chilling at night and warming at daytime, consequently leading to earlier LOD. We further develop a weighted precipitation growing-degree-day algorithm that projected a generally earlier LOD than currently predicted. These results highlight the need for a comprehensive understanding of the impacts of precipitation on LOD, which is necessary for improved projections.

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Fig. 1: Temporal trends of precipitation frequency (Pfreq) in northern ecosystems (>30° N).
Fig. 2: Impact of precipitation on LOD in northern ecosystems (>30° N).
Fig. 3: Climatic response to LOD.
Fig. 4: Mechanisms of the effect of Pfreq on LOD.
Fig. 5: Comparison of the three predictive algorithms for modelling and projections of LOD.

Data availability

The in situ phenological data can be accessed from http://www.pep725.eu/ and https://www.usanpn.org/. The flux datasets can be accessed from https://fluxnet.org/. The MODIS NDVI datasets can be accessed from https://modis.gsfc.nasa.gov/data/dataprod/mod13.php. The CRU TS4.00 datasets can be accessed from https://crudata.uea.ac.uk/cru/data/hrg/. The AgERA5 data can be accessed from https://cds.climate.copernicus.eu. The TerraClimate data can be accessed from http://www.climatologylab.org/terraclimate.html. The CPC datasets can be accessed from https://psl.noaa.gov/. The data for future climates (2019–2099) are available at https://esg.pik-potsdam.de/search/isimip/.

Code availability

The codes used for data analysis in this study are available on Zenodo at https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.5801049.

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Acknowledgements

This study was funded by the National Science Foundation (no. 1724786). We appreciate principal investigators of flux sites for providing their valuable data for our analyses. We acknowledge all members of the PEP725, CPON and NPN networks for collecting and providing the phenological data. P.C. acknowledges support from the French state aid managed by the ANR under the Investissements d’avenir programme with the reference ANR-16-CONV-0003. J.P. was funded by the Spanish government grant PID2019-110521GB-I00, the Fundación Ramón Areces grant ELEMENTAL-CLIMATE and the Catalan government grant SGR2017-1005.

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J.W. and D.L. designed the research. J.W. performed research and analysed data. J.W. wrote the first draft of the manuscript. D.L., P.C. and J.P. substantially revised the manuscript with intensive suggestions.

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Correspondence to Jian Wang or Desheng Liu.

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Nature Climate Change thanks Yongguang Zhang and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Wang, J., Liu, D., Ciais, P. et al. Decreasing rainfall frequency contributes to earlier leaf onset in northern ecosystems. Nat. Clim. Chang. 12, 386–392 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-022-01285-w

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