What do seasons tell us about climate change?

Multiple large white daisies with yellow centres.

phenology [noun] The study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena, especially in relation to climate and plant and animal life. Late 19th century: from phenomenon + -logy.

The term ‘phenology’ was coined in the mid 1800s by botanist Charles Morren and it refers to the seasonal changes in plants and animals from year to year.

Evidence of a changing climate

Examining the lifecycles of certain plant and animal species in the UK provides evidence that our climate is changing.

The science of phenology provides a powerful early warning of species that could be ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ as the climate changes. These changes may affect food chains for plants, insects and birds, with some species potentially falling out of sync with each other because each responds individually and at different rates.

For example, one of the effects on UK native wildlife of the changing climate in the last century is that oak trees are budding sooner, which is affecting the patterns of other wildflife such as caterpillars and migrating birds.

Nature's Calendar

Did you know that the biggest citizen science project in the UK is around phenology, and has been going since 1736! 

The Woodland Trust's 'Nature's Calendar' project contains 2.7 million records that cover the changing seasons. Each year, people are asked to look out for the seasonal events that happen to certain species of plant and animal in their local area, and these observations contribute to bigger scientific studies around weather and climate. 

There are 69 different species of plants, animals and fungus that can be recorded on Nature’s Calendar, with many species having more than one ‘event’ through the year. These 69 species have been chosen as they have been recorded extensively in the past, respond to seasonal temperature changes, are wide-spread across the UK and easily recognised.

Snowdrops in a wood with sunlight bursting through the trees

So when is Spring?

According to the Woodland Trust, Spring is well underway! Their recorders have already sent in records of snowdrops, hazel and lesser celandine flowering, butterflies awakening, frogs spawning and birds nesting.

Last year also saw a mild start, which meant that majority of Nature's Calendar's Spring events were early compared to the benchmark year. Meanwhile the ‘Beast from the East’ had a noticeable impact on several insect species, with queen red-tailed bumble bee, small tortoiseshell and peacock butterflies all being recorded later than usual last year.

It has been calculated that, across Europe as a whole, spring is now advancing by 2.5 days per decade. The overall period of active plant growth each year is lengthening. A recent study by the Met Office estimated it to be, on average, a month longer during the past decade compared to the period between 1961 and 1990.

Do you want to help further research into this? Head over to the Nature's Calendar website to find out more.

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