Mountain plants are considered among the species most vulnerable to climate change, especially at high latitudes where there is little potential for poleward or uphill dispersal. Satellite monitoring can reveal spatiotemporal variation in vegetation activity, offering a largely unexploited potential for studying responses of montane ecosystems to temperature and predicting phenological shifts driven by climate change. Here, a novel remote-sensing phenology approach is developed that advances existing techniques by considering variation in vegetation activity across the whole year, rather than just focusing on event dates (e.g. start and end of season). Time series of two vegetation indices (VI), normalized difference VI (NDVI) and enhanced VI (EVI) were obtained from the moderate resolution imaging spectroradiometer MODIS satellite for 2786 Scottish mountain summits (600–1344 m elevation) in the years 2000–2011. NDVI and EVI time series were temporally interpolated to derive values on the first day of each month, for comparison with gridded monthly temperatures from the preceding period. These were regressed against temperature in the previous months, elevation and their interaction, showing significant variation in temperature sensitivity between months. Warm years were associated with high NDVI and EVI in spring and summer, whereas there was little effect of temperature in autumn and a negative effect in winter. Elevation was shown to mediate phenological change via a magnification of temperature responses on the highest mountains. Together, these predict that climate change will drive substantial changes in mountain summit phenology, especially by advancing spring growth at high elevations. The phenological plasticity underlying these temperature responses may allow long-lived alpine plants to acclimate to warmer temperatures. Conversely, longer growing seasons may facilitate colonization and competitive exclusion by species currently restricted to lower elevations. In either case, these results show previously unreported seasonal and elevational variation in the temperature sensitivity of mountain vegetation activity.
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