Monitoring the Impact of Climate Change on the Timing of Lifecycle Events in Plants (project based at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and the University of Edinburgh)

   School of Geosciences

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  Dr Antje Ahrends  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project


Shifts in plant lifecycle timing are clear indicators of the impact of climate change. Effectively monitoring these shifts is critical to understanding their consequences. The project will contribute to shaping future phenology monitoring.

The project is based at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and the University of Edinburgh.

Project background

Between January and September 2023, the global mean temperature was 1.4 C higher than the temperature average 1850-1900 [1]. Global warming and more generally climate change is likely to pose an increasing future threat to plants [2,3]. Many plant species exhibit changes in their reproductive cycle such as earlier flowering in response to warmer spring temperatures [4]. Whilst observations of the timing of annual life cycle events, known as ‘phenology recording’, have clearly manifested that global warming is impacting plants, triggering measurable shifts in lifecycle events across many species, drawing direct links between these observations and actual threats to plants in the wild is more challenging.

Part of the reason for this is that many of the phenology observations for plants come from botanic gardens [5]. Here, plants are grown outside their natural habitats in controlled and optimised conditions. While the plants generally do experience temperature changes, suboptimal precipitation, frost and competition are mitigated as much as possible through horticultural care. In addition, longer-term impacts on population viability in the form of climate change impacts on reproduction are not readily observed in botanic gardens.

Conversely, botanic gardens have the advantage of being easily accessible places (often near a weather station), where trained staff and volunteers can collect long time series on a wide range of species [6,7]. Regular monitoring of plant populations in natural habitats is considerably more challenging. To shape future phenology science there is thus a need to evaluate the respective merits of data collected in a botanic garden versus challenging to obtain data from natural habitats. The latter may be aided by newer technologies such as phenology cameras [8], high-resolution drone and satellite imagery [9,10], and phenological information inherent in the thousands of photos people upload to identification platforms such as Plantnet and iNaturalist [11]. These have the potential to contribute to a massive upscaling of phenology recording in natural habitats but there are still questions over the relative merits of these methods compared to detailed on-the-ground recording, as not all phenological stages can be recorded remotely. 

Research questions

(1) Do the climate sensitivities and patterns established through phenology recording in botanic gardens hold true in the wild? 

(2) Is the level of detail recorded with phenology cameras sufficient for characterising phenological shifts or do detailed on-the-ground observations remain critical as key stages cannot be monitored with cameras? Do high-resolution drone and satellite imagery and/or citizen photos enable upscaling of phenology recording?

(3) What recommendations follow from this research for the future design of phenology monitoring programmes - in botanic gardens and more widely? 


The project will draw on 20 years of phenology data for hundreds of species recorded at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. In addition, it will access other public datasets on phenology in natural habits (e.g. Woodland's Trust Nature's Calendar, BSBI Plant Atlas), data from phenology camera networks, satellite imagery, and data from identification platforms such as Plantnet and iNaturalist. There will also be the option for the student to set up their own phenology cameras and/or to generate drone imagery. 

The first year will focus on familiarisation with available data, and on the choice of suitable species and habitats. Year 2 and 3 will focus on comparing observations from botanic gardens to data collected from natural habitats, and comparing ground observations to remotely-sensed data and other data sources. 

Depending on the interests of the student, fieldwork can form a strong component of the project (weekly recording of selected plants/habitat over a couple of years). There will also be the option to oversee the installation of phenology cameras, e.g. at a temperate rainforest site in Patagonia, Chile, and/or at a twinned site in Scotland.


A comprehensive training programme will be provided comprising both specialist scientific training and generic transferable and professional skills.


The project would suit a student with strong quantitative and technical skills. There will be abundant opportunities for fieldwork in Scotland with an optional trip to Chile (Patagonia).

Biological Sciences (4)

Funding Notes

This project is eligible for a full studentship through the E4 Doctoral Training Partnership (funded by NERC). It is open to applicants from all nationalities.
For application details see website:


[1] Copernicus. 2023. Climate Bulletins. October 2023. Accessed October 2023
[2] Nic Lughadha, E., Bachman, S. P., Leão, T. C., Forest, F., Halley, J. M., Moat, J., ... & Walker, B. E. (2020). Extinction risk and threats to plants and fungi. Plants, People, Planet, 2(5), 389-408.
[3] Royal Botanic Gardens Kew. 2023. State of the World’s Plants and Fungi 2023. Tackling the Nature Emergency: Evidence, gaps and priorities. London. Accessed October 2023.
[4] Chmielewski, F. M., Müller, A., & Bruns, E. (2004). Climate changes and trends in phenology of fruit trees and field crops in Germany, 1961–2000. Agricultural and Forest Meteorology, 121(1-2), 69-78.
[5] Fitzpatrick, L., Giambuzzi, P. J., Spreitzer, A., Reidy, B., Still, S. M., & Rollinson, C. R. (2021). Improving phenology predictions for sparsely observed species through fusion of botanical collections and citizen-science. Climate Change Ecology, 2, 100032.
[6] Primack, R. B., Ellwood, E. R., Gallinat, A. S., & Miller‐Rushing, A. J. (2021). The growing and vital role of botanical gardens in climate change research. New Phytologist, 231(3), 917-932.
[7] Tooke, F., & Battey, N. H. (2010). Temperate flowering phenology. Journal of Experimental Botany, 61(11), 2853-2862.
[8] Seyednasrollah, B., Young, A. M., Hufkens, K., Milliman, T., Friedl, M. A., Frolking, S., & Richardson, A. D. (2019). Tracking vegetation phenology across diverse biomes using Version 2.0 of the PhenoCam Dataset. Scientific data, 6(1), 222.
[9] Dixon, D. J., Callow, J. N., Duncan, J. M., Setterfield, S. A., & Pauli, N. (2021). Satellite prediction of forest flowering phenology. Remote Sensing of Environment, 255, 112197.
[10] Piao, S., Liu, Q., Chen, A., Janssens, I. A., Fu, Y., Dai, J., ... & Zhu, X. (2019). Plant phenology and global climate change: Current progresses and challenges. Global change biology, 25(6), 1922-1940.
[11] Klinger, Y. P., Eckstein, R. L., & Kleinebecker, T. (2023). iPhenology: Using open‐access citizen science photos to track phenology at continental scale. Methods in Ecology and Evolution.

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