Geography Phenology and Climate
Mark D. Schwartz
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 September 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0170


Phenology is the study of recurring plant and animal life cycle stages, especially their timing and relationships with the environment. Numerous environmental factors can drive phenological events, but these are primarily atmospheric variables, and in temperate zones predominately related to temperature. Thus, weather and climate play a dominant role in determining both the average timing and the specific date a phenological event will occur at specific locations and years. General understanding of the connections between phenology and climate go back as far the beginnings of agriculture, when farmers looked to seasonal biological signs to guide their activities. However, phenology as a scientific field of study emerged only in the last few centuries. Even so, only in the past few decades, thanks to concerns related to the impacts of climate change, has phenology been recognized as a crucial element of environmental science that can contribute much to ecological, agricultural, and related studies. Scientific studies of phenology and climate began with simple examinations of seasonal changes in temperate zone plants (mostly crops and trees), concentrating on temperature relationships. These areas continue to develop in sophistication, providing support for many useful applications in agriculture and horticulture. As the field has developed, phenological relationships in other bioclimatic zones have been explored, as well the impacts of different scales of data collection. A great deal of effort has been devoted to model development using temperature and other environmental drivers, including advancements with statistical approaches, as well as mechanistic formulations that strive to better represent internal plant functions. These modeling studies, coupled with empirical phenological data analyses, are essential aspects of research into the impacts of past and potential future climate changes on ecosystems, including adaptation and evolutionary changes. A few studies have even started to document the feedback impacts of seasonal phenological changes on the nature of the lower atmosphere. Lastly, phenology of animals is generally less directly connected to climate than plants due to their mobility and greater potential for utilization of metabolic energy, especially among warm-blooded creatures. Nevertheless, significant research into various animal phenologies, including model development, has been accomplished.

Reference Works

As a small and relatively new field of study, general references for phenological research have been sparse. Schnelle 1955 is the first, and a significant contribution, but it represents the temperate zone and plant focus of the time. Lieth 1974 is a breakthrough publication that outlined and helped to set the trajectory for broader application of phenological studies to ecological challenges in recent decades. Schwartz 2013 is the current comprehensive reference to the field of phenology, while Hudson and Keatley 2010 goes into greater detail regarding various techniques and methods, as applied to phenological studies.

  • Hudson, Irene L., and Marie R. Keatley, eds. Phenological Research: Methods for Environmental and Climate Change Analysis. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer, 2010.

    A broad volume offering many examples of modern data collection strategies, statistical methods, and other techniques applied to phenological studies.

  • Lieth, Helmut, ed. Phenology and Seasonality Modeling. New York: Springer, 1974.

    The first comprehensive volume to document the broad applications of phenological studies.

  • Schnelle, Fritz. Pflanzen-Phänologie. Leipzig, Germany: Akademische Verlagsgesell-schaft, 1955.

    The first detailed scientific volume devoted to phenological studies. Given the era it covers only plants, and unfortunately it has never been completely translated from the original German, which has limited its usefulness to English speakers.

  • Schwartz, Mark D., ed. Phenology: An Integrative Environmental Science. 2d ed. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer, 2013.

    A modern synthesis that explores most aspects of the broad field of phenology, expanding and updating the first edition published in 2003.

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