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Changing Temperature and Precipitation Trends and its Affects on the Flowering Season

Cherry blossoms at the FDR Memorial, National Park Service (Courtesy Earth Gauge) Cherry blossoms at the FDR Memorial, National Park Service (Courtesy Earth Gauge)

Across America... climate change has already started to interrupt nature's rhythm.  Plants have begun to flower at different times than before... largely in tandem with long-term temperature and precipitation trends. 

The USA National Phenology Network has compiled some of the most robust analyses of observed flowering season changes for each region of the United States that are summarized below.

  • Alaskan Snowmelt Affects Flowering: In Alaska, where average temperatures have risen two times faster than in the contiguous United States, earlier Arctic snowmelts have been associated with earlier blooms of mountain-aven flowers.  However, it remains unclear if all plants are "greening up" any earlier than before, at least across decadal time scales.

 

  • Central Plains See Earlier Blooms: In the nation's breadbasket, where mean annual temperatures have risen by 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit since 1970, wheat now blooms six to 10 days earlier than it did 70 years ago.  In North Dakota, the average growing season has increased by nearly 17 percent since the dawn of the 20th century and 41 percent of North Dakota's 178 more common plant species bloom much earlier or later today than approximately 50 to 100 years prior.

 

  • Early Spring, Early Blossoms in the Midwest: The Midwest has seen its average temperatures rise and its summer downpours double from earlier periods of the last century.  Earlier starts to the spring season have strongly encouraged earlier bloomers to flower even earlier than they did nearly 30 years ago.

 

  • Northeast Plants Bloom Much Earlier These Days: In the Northeast, some of the most anticipated springtime bloomers are Washington, D.C.'s iconic cherry blossom trees, whose erratic blooming period has frustrated tourists and event planners in recent years.  Overall, these trees now bloom about seven days earlier than they did in the 1970s.  Thanks to Henry David Thoreau, scientists have first flowering data for Concord, Massachusetts dating back to 1852, and recent analyses show their plants bloom seven days earlier, on average, than in Thoreau's time.  Amazingly, blueberries flower 21 days earlier now, and wood sorrel wildflowers now bloom an entire month earlier.

 

  • Earlier Snowmelts Affect Northwestern Blooming Season: In the Pacific Northwest, lilac and honeysuckle now bloom about 7.5 to ten days early than 40 years ago.  Much of this change corresponds to earlier snowmelts that have been linked to warmer winters where more precipitation is now falling as rain instead of snow.  In fact, snow packs in the Pacific Northwestern mountains have already fallen, on average, by 25 percent over the past 40 to 70 years.

 

  • Southeast Sees Later Springtime Flowering Seasons: In a fascinating twist, Southeastern winters have become so much warmer than usual that many plants don't seem sure of when winter has passed, so they're actually blooming later than before.  Specimens of Floridian plants that need winter chills were collected from 1819 to 2008, and an analysis showed that native and nonnative plants now flower four to 19 days later than they did in the 19th century.  Much of this delay was connected to the variability of minimum temperatures.  Alternatively, Southeastern plants may have grown wary of the growing number of "false springs," when early spring weather triggers flower periods that are followed by damagingly hard freezes.  Later blooming periods can reduce the chances of encountering these events.

 

  • Water Drives Flowering Season in the West: In the Southwest, flowering seasons are primarily driven by one of this region's scarcest resources, water, even though average temperatures have risen more here than anywhere else in the Lower 48.  Here, snowmelt delivers much of that springtime water, and early snowmelts (resulting from warmer winters over time) have sparked earlier blossoms.  For example, the Glacier Lilly in Colorado bloomed 3.2 days early per decade over a 30 year period.
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