Springing Forward: Does climate change cause plants to flower earlier?

Scientist Shaun collecting phenology data in the climate change experiment. He is recording the date that the first flowers emerge for dame’s rocket.

Sean Mooney, a high school researcher, collecting phenology data in the climate change experiment. He is recording the date that the first flowers emerge for dame’s rocket.

The Reading Level 1 activities are as follows:

The Reading Level 3 activities are as follows:

Every day we add more greenhouse gases to our air by burning fossil fuels, such as oil, coal, and natural gas. Greenhouse gasses trap the sun’s heat, so as we add more the Earth is heating up!  What does this mean for the species on our planet? The timing of life cycle events for plant and animals, like flowering and migration, are largely determined by cues organisms take from the environment. The timing of these events is called phenology. Scientists studying penology are interested in how climate change will influence different species. For example, with warming temperatures and unpredictable transitions between seasons, what can we expect to happen to the migration timings of birds, mating seasons for animals, or flowering times of plants?

Scientists collecting phenology data in the climate change experiment. They are recording the date that the first flowers emerge for dame’s rocket.

Scientists collecting phenology data in the climate change experiment.

Plants are the foundation for almost all life on Earth. Through photosynthesis, plants produce O2 that we breathe, food for animals and microbes, and crops that provide food and materials for human society. Because plants are so important, we need to find out how climate change will affect them. One good place to start is by looking at flowering plants. How will increased temperatures affect the phenology of flowering? The date that flowers first emerge for a species may driven by temperature. If this is the case, we would expect flowers to emerge earlier each year as temperatures increase due to climate change. If flowers come out earlier and earlier each year, this could greatly impact plant reproduction and could cause problems for pollinators who count on plants flowering at the same times each year.

Shaun, Mark, Elizabeth, and Jen are scientists who wanted to know if higher temperatures would lead to earlier flowering dates for plants. They chose to look at flowers of dame’s rocket, a leafy plant that is related to the plants we use to make mustard! Mark planted dame’s rocket in eight plots of land. Plots were randomly assigned to one of two treatments. Half of the plots were left to experience normal temperatures (ambient), while the other four received a heating treatment to simulate climate change (heated). Air temperatures in heated plots increased by 3°C, which mimics climate change projections for what Michigan will experience by the end of the century. Mark, Elizabeth, and Jen measured the date that each plant grew its first flower, and the survival of each plant. The scientists predicted that dame’s rocket growing in the heated plots would flower earlier than those in the normal plots.

 Featured scientists: Shaun Davis from Thornapple Kellogg Middle School and Mark Hammond, Elizabeth Schultheis, and Jen Lau from Michigan State University

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = The Reading Level 3 activity has a score of 9.2; the Level 1 has a 6.4.

Flowers of Hesperis matronalis (dame’s rocket), a species of mustard that was introduced to the U.S. from Eurasia.

Flowers of Hesperis matronalis (dame’s rocket), a species of mustard that was introduced to the U.S. from Eurasia.

Additional teacher resources related to this Data Nugget include:

  • If you would like your students to interact with the raw data, we have attached the original data here. The file also includes weather data over the course of the experiment if students want to ask and explore independent questions.
  • For a lesson plan that uses citizen science phenology datasets to examine changes in phenology over 30+ year timespans, and address the scientific question, “Do we see evidence for climate change in the phenology of plants and animals?”, click here.
  • Many phenology datasets are freely available online (many collected by citizen scientists). These datasets are extremely useful because scientists (and your students!) can examine average trends in timing shifts over periods of decades and often in different regions. Phenology datasets available online:

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