Nature and Biodiversity

UK flowers are blooming a month earlier because of climate change. Here's why that's a problem

A close up image of a pink wildflower

In 2019, UK flowers bloomed 40 days earlier than the average three decades earlier. Image: UNSPLASH/Adam Rhodes

Charlotte Edmond
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • The average first date of flowering for UK plants has come forward almost a month since the 1750s.
  • An “ecological mismatch” could be created where interdependent species suffer from no longer being aligned.
  • Research suggests that although some species are adapting, they will be outpaced by the speed of climate change.

Some plants in the UK are flowering a month earlier than they used to, as climate change causes temperatures to climb.

Researchers reviewed 420,000 first flowering dates for over 400 species, dating right back to 1753. They found that up until 1986, the average first day of flowering was around 12 May, but it has since moved significantly earlier, to 16 April.

Flowers were even in bloom by 2 April in 2019, according to the most recent data. That is 40 days earlier than the average three decades earlier.

A chart showing first day of flowering by year.
The average first day of flowering has shifted by a month since the 1750s. Image: Ulf Büntgen/The Royal Society

In the north of the country, flowers generally emerge six days later than in the south, and plants in urban areas bloom five days earlier than those in rural settings.

Herbaceous plants showed a particularly marked shift in flowering patterns, probably because they are fast-growing and short-lived, with a particularly high genetic adaptability.

Chart showing temperature dependency of first flowering dates.
As temperatures have climbed, flowering dates have shifted earlier. Image: Ulf Büntgen/The Royal Society

Such large changes in first flowering dates could result in an “ecological mismatch”, the researchers say, where plants move out of sync with the seasonal pollinators and seed-dispersing animals they rely on. Similarly, many animals and insects are reliant on nectar and fruit, which could no longer be available when it’s needed.

Earlier-flowering plants are also at greater risk of frost damage, which could have important implications for agriculture, among other things.

Chart showing European average temperatures from 1850-2019.
Europe’s average temperature in 2014 was 2.2℃ above the pre-industrial average – the biggest divergence to date. Image: Statista
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It’s not just plants that are changing

Tolerance of temperature rises varies from species to species – as does their ability to adapt to such shifts. But the UK’s flowers are not the only ones showing climate change adaptations.

It has long been recognized that animals use appendages such as beaks and ears to control their body temperature – for example, the African elephant uses its large ears. But some animal species have changed their body shape or size to make it easier for them to release excess heat. Several types of Australian parrot have developed larger bills to enable better heat exchange.

Masked shrews have become bigger as their habitat has heated up, while anole lizards have increased the size of their toe pads to improve their grip as climate change causes more frequent and severe hurricanes. And as oceans warm, numbers of cephalopods – creatures like octopus and squid – are booming, and they are expanding their habitat.

There are also plenty of examples of behavioural changes among those animals less genetically adaptable to a warmer world. Bird and deer species, for example, have delayed breeding. And Arctic animals are changing their migration patterns.

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However, despite multiple examples of adaptations, climate change is still putting many species at risk. A recent review of multiple studies found that animals are unlikely to be able to adapt at the speed necessary to keep pace with predicted rises in temperature. And many adaptations already made are likely to be insufficient for the future climate.

Added to this, extreme heat and weather events risk wiping out entire populations, preventing gradual adaptations.

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