The use of thermal time is essential in plant studies and crop growth modeling because correcting time for temperature allows working in fluctuating conditions as if temperature was constant. However, thermal time is often seen as a loose concept because of a multitude of thermal functions and case-specific parameter values. Our hypothesis is that these different formalisms and parameterization could emerge from common principles and a common response of plant development to temperature, but with several counfounding factors which are not taken into account. We first show that these calculations of thermal time are based on sound common principles and mathematical formalisms. We test, via a modelling exercise of nine case studies using maize plants grown in three field sites, how a given "ground truth" response of plant development rate to temperature can be affected if an experimenter either considers or ignores confounding factors. We also show that apparent differences in temperature responses between phenological stages of the growth cycle, between day and night, or between plant genotypes may be due to the confounding effects of evaporative demand, the range of temperatures, and the time interval at which measurements are taken. On the basis of our findings, we propose that the critical point in the use of a given formalism of thermal time calculation is to ensure that the chosen model is compatible with the temporal definition, temperature range, and environmental scenario in the considered dataset.
Keywords: Crop model; degreeday; leaf expansion; plant development; temperature range; temporal resolution; thermal time; vapour pressure deficit.
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