Altered geographic and temporal variability in phenology in response to climate change


*Correspondence: A. Menzel, Lehrstuhl für Ökoklimatologie, Technical University of Munich, Am Hochanger 13, 85354 Freising, Germany. E-mail:


Aim  In response to recent climate warming, numerous studies have reported an earlier onset of spring and, to a lesser degree, a later onset of autumn, both determined from phenological observations. Here, we examine whether these reported changes have affected the synchronization of events on a regional level by examining temporal and spatial variability in phenology. In particular, we study whether years with earlier springs are associated with an altered spatial variability in phenology.

Location  Germany and the United Kingdom.

Methods  Plant phenological observations of 35 different phases (events such as flowering and leafing) collected by the German Weather Service (1951–2002) and butterfly phenological records of 29 species collected by the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme (1976–2003) are used. In these long-term records, we examine the temporal (year-to-year) variability and the spatial (geographic or between site) variability with particular emphasis on how they vary with time of the year and with earliness or lateness of the phase.

Results  Early phenological events (i.e. spring) are more variable than later events, both in time and in space, although the pattern is clearer for plants than for butterflies. Confirming previous results, we find a clear relationship between the mean date of spring and summer phases and the degree to which they have become earlier. The spatial variability of spring events is greater in warmer years that have faster plant development. However, late spring and summer events do not show a consistent relationship. Autumn events are somewhat more spatially variable in years characterized by later seasons.

Main conclusions  This is the first examination of spatial variability of plant and animal phenological events at a multinational scale. Earlier spring events are likely to be associated with increased spatial variability in plants, although this is unlikely to also be true for summer events. If species experience differential changes in geographic variation this may disrupt interactions among them, e.g. in food webs. On the other hand, these may offer advantages for mobile species. Further research on linked species is recommended.