Spring onset variations and trends in the continental United States: past and regional assessment using temperature-based indices


Correspondence to: M. D. Schwartz, Department of Geography, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Milwaukee, WI, USA. E–mail: mds@uwm.edu


Phenological data are simple yet sensitive indicators of climate change impacts on ecosystems, but observations have not been made routinely or extensively enough to evaluate spatial and temporal patterns across most continents, including North America. As an alternative, many studies use weather-based algorithms to simulate specific phenological responses. Spring Indices (SI) are a set of complex phenological models that have been successfully applied to evaluate variations and trends in the onset of spring across the Northern Hemisphere's temperate regions. To date, SI models have been limited by only producing output in locations where both the plants' chilling and warmth requirements are met. Here, we develop an extended form of the SI (abbreviated SI-x) that expands their application into the subtropics by ignoring chilling requirements while still retaining the utility and accuracy of the original SI (now abbreviated SI-o).

The validity of the new indices is tested, and regional SI anomalies are explored across the data-rich continental United States. SI-x variations from 1900 to 2010 show an abrupt and sustained delay in spring onset of about 4–8 d (around 1958) in parts of the Southeast and southern Great Plains, and a comparable advance of 4–8 d (around 1984) in parts of the northern Great Plains and the West. Atmospheric circulation anomalies, linked to large-scale modes of variability, exert modest but significant roles in the timing of spring onset across the United States on interannual and longer timescales. The SI-x are promising metrics for tracking spring onset variations and trends in mid-latitudes, relating them to relevant ecological, hydrological, and socioeconomic phenomena, and exploring connections between atmospheric drivers and seasonal timing.