Process-oriented models of leaf senescence are biased towards the mean: Impacts on model performance and future projections

Michael Meier, Harald Bugmann, Christof Bigler

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The timing of leaf senescence in deciduous trees influences carbon uptake and the resources available for tree growth, defense, and reproduction. Therefore, simulated biosphere-atmosphere interactions and, eventually, estimates of the biospheric climate change mitigation potential are affected by the accuracy of process-oriented leaf senescence models. However, current leaf senescence models are likely to suffer from a bias towards the mean (BTM). This may lead to overly flat trends, whereby errors would increase with increasing difference from the average timing of leaf senescence, ultimately distorting model performance and projected future shifts. However, such effects of the BTM on model performance and future shifts have rarely been investigated. We analyzed >17 × 106 past dates and >49 × 106 future shifts of leaf senescence simulated by 21 process-oriented models that had been calibrated with >45,000 observations from Central Europe for three major European tree species. The surmised effects on model performance and future shifts occurred in all 21 models, revealing strong model-specific BTM. In general, the models performed only slightly better than a null model that just simulates the average timing of leaf senescence. While standard comparisons of model performance favored models with stronger BTM, future shifts of leaf senescence were smaller when projected by models with weaker BTM. Overall, the future shifts for 2090–2099 relative to 1990–1999 increased by an average of 13–14 days after correcting for the BTM. In conclusion, the BTM substantially affects simulations by state-of-the-art leaf senescence models, which compromises model comparisons and distorts projections of future shifts. Smaller shifts result from flatter trends associated with stronger BTM. Therefore, smaller shifts according to models with weaker BTM illustrate the considerable uncertainty in current leaf senescence projections. It is likely that state-of-the-art projections of future biosphere behavior under global change are distorted by erroneous leaf senescence models.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere17099
JournalGlobal Change Biology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2024
Externally publishedYes


  • Nash-Sutcliffe efficiency
  • compromised model comparisons
  • distorted model accuracy
  • distorted projections
  • mean bias
  • phenological difference
  • root mean squared error


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