Tour of Flanders archive images show effect of climate change


Researchers at UGent have used identical photos shot over 36 years of the Tour of Flanders road race to determine the effect of climate change on local trees and plants

1.5 degrees in 35 years

Researchers at Ghent University (UGent) have found a unique way to illustrate the effects of climate change, using archive images provided by public broadcaster VRT. They examined 36 successive editions of the Tour of Flanders road cycle race and discovered that trees on the hills of the course are budding earlier.

The annual cycle event always takes place on the first Sunday in April. The researchers from the department of forest and water management compared images of the same trees and plants on 12 hills of the route – popular spots for photographers during the Tour – between 1980 and 2016.

Before 1990, the trees rarely had leaves during the race. But after 1990, the trees – largely magnolia, hawthorn, hornbeam and birch – were full of leaves. The researchers said that the pictorial evidence suggests that the average temperature in these areas has increased by 1.5 degrees Celsius since 1980.

When trees get their leaves earlier in the year, it creates a shadow for a longer period of time, meaning that some flowers don’t get enough sun to bloom. This then has an effect on insects and birds.

Until now, the effects of climate change on trees was mostly determined in forests and parks for a limited number of tree and plant species. UGent’s photographs allow researchers to study a larger diversity of species.

Photo: Tim De Waele/courtesy Visit Flanders