Southern Africa: Namaqualand Daisies are Flowering earlier

dWeb.News Article from Daniel Webster dWeb.News

In late August every year, the otherwise barren Namaqualand landscape, near the Western Border of South Africa, becomes a spectacular display of brightly coloured daisies. The flowering of the Namaqualand daisies attracts close to 10,000 tourists per season to a part of the country that doesn’t get many visitors otherwise. Climate change is threatening the flowering event and the tourist arrivals that generate regional income.

The Namaqualand Daisies (Dimorphotheca Sinuata), are native to the Western Cape and Northern Cape provinces in South Africa. have evolved to withstand the harsh, dry climate. The change in temperature and rainfall triggers the flowering of the daisies in the spring. This is a good example of what can be called a “phenological event”.

Phenological events – such as the timing of spring blossoming, fruit development in summer and the hibernation, hatching, and mating of animals – are among the most sensitive bioindicators of climate change. The timing of phenological events is changing around the globe as a result climate change. Both animals and plants experience “spring” when it happens in what was “late winter”. Simply put, the temperatures in late winter are rising faster than ever before.

The rate at which phenological events occur is highly dependent on the species and where they are occurring. It is important to study as many animals and plants as possible in order to understand the timing of phenological events. We can adapt our adaptations if we know the rate at which a specific species or location changes. This is especially important for Namaqualand daisies as it allows us to plan when we book tourist visits.

Phenological research is sparse in Africa, compared to Europe, North America and East Asia. This is due in large part to the lack of phenological data that has been collected.

Recent studies of shifts in the timing of flowering of jacarandas in Gauteng, and of the migration of the sardines along the east coast of South Africa, have revealed the importance of traditional news media and social media records as sources of data. We used the same approach to study changes in the timing of the Namaqualand daisies. This is essential for planning tourism and understanding the nature’s response to climate change.

The research

We compiled a total of 663 records of flowering dates of the Namaqualand daisies from a selection of daily newspapers spanning 1935-2018, and from posts on Flickr and iNaturalist. Each record was coded according to the date of reporting, the date of observation and the extent of bloom reported. This information was gathered from a variety of daily newspapers that span 86-31, and posts on Flickr and iNaturalist. These dates were then analyzed for any changes over time. The timing of peak bloom, first flowering and the end the flowering season was a bit earlier than expected.

The most rapid, statistically significant advance was found for first flowering dates, at a rate of 2.6 days per decade. Peak flowering moved at 2.1 days per ten years. The trend was not statistically significant because there were less records of the end of bloom dates. However, it indicates that peak flowering advanced at a faster rate of 2.8 days per decade.

These trends were then compared to climate data from seven meteorological stations in the Namaqualand region to understand the climatic triggers of flowering, and the drivers of this advance. Temperatures during winter and spring, winter rainfall and the timing of the onset of rainy season were the strongest climatic factors. These factors acted together to trigger flowering, and the changes of each of these climatic variables over the past 80 years have resulted in the advance in flowering dates.

Impact on tourism

So what does this mean for tourism in the region?

As flowering dates are happening earlier, the timing of organised and independent flower tours will need to shift to give tourists the best chance of experiencing the region in peak bloom.

Unfortunately, this isn’t as easy as arriving 2.1 to 2.6 days earlier each decade; under climate change the timing of flowering is also becoming more unpredictable. Tourists might arrive either before or after flowering occurs, even if bookings are made to accommodate earlier flowering. This favors last-minute bookings and travel decisions, which can be more difficult for the tourism industry to plan for.

A phenological shift refers to an evolutionary response to changing climate conditions, but it cannot be sustained indefinitely. The daisies are more at risk from frost events due to their increased flowering. This is because the plants’ dormancy period has been reduced. They are at higher risk of experiencing failed flowering seasons and eventual extinction. This would result in a significant loss of biodiversity and tourism.

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What can be done?

To slow down or reverse phenological shifts, we would need to slow down or reverse climate change. The COP26 meeting in Glasgow in 2021 was an important space for countries to agree on emissions targets, but it remains to be seen how much change will take place.

In the meantime, the flowering dates will continue to advance as long as the climate keeps changing. These wildflowers don’t lend themselves to agricultural solutions such as changing the farm’s location or using hybrids. It is important to take advantage of these flowers as soon as possible and make sure they are still in full bloom each year. Visitors could book ahead and travel to the region during peak season to help the tourism industry.

Jennifer Fitchett, Associate Professor of Physical Geography, University of the Witwatersrand

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