Plant ecologists have long been concerned with a seemingly paradoxical scenario in the relationship between plant growth and climate change: warming may actually increase the risk of plant frost damage. The underlying hypothesis is that mild winters and warm, early springs, which are expected to occur as the climate warms, may induce premature plant development, resulting in exposure of vulnerable plant tissues and organs to subsequent late-season frosts. The 2007 spring freeze in the eastern United States provides an excellent opportunity to evaluate this hypothesis and assess its large-scale consequences. In this article, we contrast the rapid prefreeze phenological advancement caused by unusually warm conditions with the dramatic postfreeze setback, and report complicated patterns of freeze damage to plants. The widespread devastation of crops and natural vegetation occasioned by this event demonstrates the need to consider large fluctuations in spring temperatures a real threat to terrestrial ecosystem structure and functioning in a warming climate.
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Vol. 58 • No. 3