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Biodiversity: European scale

Observed climate change impacts on global biodiversity, an overview

In 2016 the journal Science published an overview of climate change impacts on biodiversity: The broad footprint of climate change from genes to biomes to people (93). The section below presents a summary of this overview article.

Impacts from genes to communities

Just 1°C of average warming globally today already has led to an impact of climate change on most ecological processes for terrestrial, freshwater, and marine ecosystems. These impacts span the biological hierarchy from genes to communities. These processes include changes in genetic diversity of species (genetics), metabolic rates (physiology), body size (morphology), timing of migration (phenology), recruitment (population dynamics), range size (distribution), loss of synchronization (interspecific relationships), and biomass (productivity) (94).


  • Genetics: There is strong evidence for genetic responses to climate change, although most evidence refers to small organisms with short generation times. There is little documented evidence of evolutionary change from species with longer generation times such as birds, mammals, and trees (95).
  • Physiology: Physiology is the functioning of organisms. Physiological processes of organisms may adapt to higher temperatures and other climate-mediated changes, or fail to do so. These responses can occur within a generation or between generations (96). In marine systems, physiological responses to both climate warming and changing ocean conditions are widespread (97).
  • Morphology: In general, decreasing body size with warming is expected, thus increasing surface-to-volume ratios, which is generally favored under warmer conditions (98).
  • Phenology: For most species, migrations and life-history processes (such as budding and flowering in plants, hatching and fledging in birds, and hibernation in mammals) are closely tied to seasonal and interannual variation in climate, and there is now overwhelming evidence that both have been affected by climate change (99). Across marine, freshwater, and terrestrial ecosystems, spring phenologies have advanced by 2.3 to 5.1 days per decade (100). Changes in the timing of migration events have been extensively documented, including advances in spring arrival dates of long-distance migratory bird species in Europe, North America, and Australia (101). In marine and freshwater systems, advances in the timing of annual phytoplankton blooms, the basis for many aquatic food webs, have occurred more rapidly than temporal shifts in terrestrial plants (102). Such changes in plankton phenology have been attributed to increases in water temperatures, reduction in the duration of ice cover, and the alteration of the seasonal duration of thermal stability or stratification of the water column. Phenological changes due to milder winters are influencing crop and fruit production (103). Climate change has reduced winter chill events in temperate agricultural areas (104), which can desynchronize male and female flowers and trigger delayed pollination, delayed foliation, and reduced fruit yield and quality.
  • Abundance and population dynamics: ~80% of communities across terrestrial, freshwater, and marine ecosystems exhibited a response in abundance that was in accordance with climate change predictions (105). 52% of warm-adapted marine species, for instance, increased in abundance, whereas 52% of marine cold-adapted species decreased (106). Excessive heat causes bleaching and mass mortality of corals in the tropics (107). The brown trout has lost habitat in the Swiss Alps (108) due to increased water temperatures. Some of the best evidence for climate-change impacts on the abundance of terrestrial species comes from analyses of bird population trends derived from systematic monitoring schemes in Europe, with warm-adapted species having increased in abundance on average since the 1980s and cold-adapted species having declined (109). Climate change can increase the abundance of temperature-sensitive disease vectors, with subsequent effects on disease outbreaks.
  • Distribution: One of the most rapid responses observed for marine, freshwater, and terrestrial species is a shift in their distributions to track optimal habitat conditions (110). There has been a consistent overall trend for tropical, warm-adapted species to expand their ranges into environments previously dominated by temperate cold-tolerant species (“tropicalization”) (111). A similar phenomenon has been documented in the Arctic, where boreal fish communities have responded to warming in the Barents Sea by shifting northward, resulting in a high turnover in Arctic fish communities (“borealization”) (112). Shifts in species distributions have also occurred across elevation gradients. In France, for instance, upslope shift was observed in recent decades in mountainous stream-dwelling fish (113).
  • Interspecific relationships: As a by-product of the redistribution of species in response to changing climate, existing interactions among species are being disrupted, and new interactions are emerging (114). These novel biotic interactions can exacerbate the impacts of abiotic climate change (115). This may lead to predator-prey mismatches, for instance due to an earlier bloom or geographical shift of prey compared with the predator. Pollination is a key process linked to yields for a large number of crops. The short-lived, highly mobile insect species that provide pollination services to numerous crops have responded rapidly to changing climates by shifting their ranges throughout North America and Europe (116). Additionally, over the past 120 years, many plant-pollinator networks have been lost with overall decline in pollination services, which is attributed to a combination of habitat loss, pollution, and climate warming (117).
  • Productivity: Changes in productivity are one of the most critical impacts of climate change across aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems (118). Both increases and decreases of productivity are possible.
  • Ecosystem state shifts: Diminished resilience may lead to ecological regime shifts, in which one ecosystem state shifts to an alternative and potentially undesirable stable state. In lakes, for instance, climate change has increased the risk of regime shifts from clear water to turbid states and increased the occurrence of cyanobacteria blooms (119).

Consequences for us

Disruptions have documented consequences for people, including unpredictable fisheries and crop yields, loss of genetic diversity in wild crop varieties, and increasing impacts of pests and diseases. In addition to reducing greenhouse gases, climate action and policy must also focus on strategies that safeguard biodiversity and ecosystems.

  • Fishery: The impacts of climate change on marine fisheries have major consequences for human societies because these currently provide ~17% of the global protein for people (120). The effect of warmer water on fishery may be both positive and negative. In the Arctic, for instance, commercially important fish such as Atlantic cod have increased in biomass primarily because of increases in plankton production from reduced sea ice (121). In Switzerland, on the other hand, trout catches have been halved over two decades because of rising temperatures in Alpine streams (122). Changes in total marine productivity are not just attributed to abundance shifts but also morphological shifts. Eight commercial fish species in the North Sea, for instance, underwent simultaneous reductions in body size over a 40-year period because of ocean warming, resulting in 23% lower yields (123). Reduced body size in fish is also being recorded in lakes and rivers throughout Europe and has been linked to increased temperature and climate-induced shifts in nutrient inputs (124).
  • Agriculture: Impacts on plant genetics and physiology are influencing human agricultural systems. For example, yields in rice, maize, and coffee have declined in response to the combined effects of rising temperatures and increasing precipitation variability over past decades (125).
  • Human health: Pest and pathogen outbreaks may increase in the future because hundreds of plant pest and pathogen species have shifted their distributions 2 to 3.5 km per year poleward since the 1960s (126). Emerging threats to human health under climate change are vector-borne (mosquitos, ticks) diseases (127).
  • Risk reduction climate-related hazards: Changes in ecological processes might compromise the functionality of ecosystems. This is an important consideration because healthy systems (both terrestrial and marine) sequester substantial amounts of carbon (128) and reduce risks associated with climate-related hazards such as floods, sea-level rise, and cyclones (129). In island and coastal communities, coral reefs can reduce wave energy by an average of 97% (130), and coastal ecosystems such as mangroves and tidal marshes buffer storms (131), while on land intact native forests are important in reducing the frequency and severity of floods (132). In many cases, maintaining functioning systems offers more sustainable, cost-effective, and ecologically sound alternatives than conventional engineering solutions (133). 

Projected climate change impacts on global terrestrial biodiversity

Terrestrial biodiversity will respond to climate change. This response has been quantified by analysing a selection of 97 studies published between 1992 and 2015. These studies reported climate change effects on contemporary ecosystems and different taxonomic groups (plants, vertebrates, birds, mammals, herptiles, insects) around the world (177). From these 97 studies, the proportion of terrestrial biodiversity that remained at different levels of global warming was estimated. This proportion was expressed in two metrics: (1) the fraction of remaining (i.e., persisting) species at a location, and (2) the fraction of remaining area with a suitable climate for a certain species. Both metrics indicate a deviation from the original biodiversity state and indicate biodiversity intactness (178).


  • Remaining species: According to this analysis, the fraction of remaining species at a location will reduce to 86% (95% confidence interval: 79–93%) when global warming reaches 2 °C above the pre-industrial level (approximately 1880). This implies that under a global mean temperature increase of up to 2 °C, terrestrial ecosystems could lose on average 14% of their current local species. A further global warming up to 3 °C and 4 °C will lead to a reduction of remaining species up to 83% (95% confidence interval: 78–88%) and 78% (95% confidence interval: 72–86%), respectively (177).
  • Remaining suitable area: Likewise, the fraction of remaining area with a suitable climate for a certain species will reduce to 65% (95% confidence interval: 56–75%) at 2 °C global warming, and to 50% (95% confidence interval: 39–64%) and 46% (95% confidence interval: 34–63%) at 3 °C and 4 °C global warming, respectively (177).

The study indicates that deserts, temperate forests, shrublands, and tropical and boreal forests are the most sensitive biomes to increasing global temperatures. The results indicate that many species will disappear from areas where they now occur. However, this does not mean that total species richness will necessary decrease as new species can potentially expand their ranges and establish, depending on their ability to disperse. In this analysis, it was assumed that species are unable to disperse or adapt. This is a conservative assumption, but probably not that conservative: on average, no dispersal is close to reality for most species (179). Thus, according to the authors, the metrics used in their analysis are a good indication of projected decreases of terrestrial biodiversity.

Causes of failure to conserve biodiversity

Four reasons have been identified why we have failed to stem the tide of biodiversity loss (135):

  1. Responses to biodiversity decline are being more than offset by rising pressures due to increasing human population size and per capita consumption.
  2. Interactions and synergies among threatening processes often amplify their effects, producing large and accelerating combined impacts (136). Climate change is likely to amplify impacts of other drivers of species decline, for instance increasing the susceptibility of amphibians to disease when temperature variability rises (137).
  3. Funding for global conservation is inadequate. The developing world relies heavily on international aid for biodiversity conservation projects, but the sums available are typically insufficient for effective action (139). To make matters worse, threatened biodiversity is concentrated in those parts of the world where conservation is most underfunded (138).
  4. In most societies conservation is not mainstreamed into economic and social planning and human behavior (140). Conservation remains largely a discrete sector, which reacts as best it can to threats generated by other, more powerful sectors such as transport and agriculture. Conservation and sustainable use of ecosystems need to be embedded as primary societal concerns. 

Extinction risk from climate change

European national reports suggest that 14% of habitats and 13% of species of European interest are already under pressure because of climate change over their natural European range, including 43% of dunes habitats. In the near future, 33% of habitats and 18% of species may be threatened by climate change. Bogs, mires and fens are considered to be the most vulnerable habitat types, with up to 75% potentially negatively affected in the near future. This 
is particularly worrying because bogs and mires are important carbon stores and their degradation releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere (151). 


Climate change will affect the suitability of habitats for species. If an area becomes unsuitable, decades might elapse between habitat loss and species extinction (36). Information on these time lags is not currently available. Therefore, proportions of 1,103 animal and plant species have been estimated that are ‘committed to future extinction’ as a consequence of climate change over the next 50 years, not the number of species that will become extinct during this period (37). The estimates for 2050, representing different continents, vary from 18% ‘committed extinctions’ for scenarios of minimum expected climate-change, to 24% and 35% for mid-range and maximum climate change projections, respectively.

Species extinctions, although still uncommon, are increasingly attributed to climate change (73). However, consistent, global estimates of species extinctions attributable to future climate change are still lacking (71). Current predictions about extinction risks vary widely, suggesting that anywhere from 0 to 54% of species could become extinct from climate change (72). From a meta-analysis of 131 published predictions, extinction risks from climate change have been estimated for a number of global warming rates. It was concluded that climate change threatens one in six species (16%) globally if we follow our current, business-as-usual trajectory (scenario RCP 8.5, resulting in a global warming of 4.3°C). Lower percentages of species at risk due to global warming gave been calculated for lower global warming (5.2% for 2°C post-industrial global warming, 8.5% for 3°C) (71). These results must be interpreted cautiously, however. In studies, important biological mechanisms that may increase or decrease predicted risks, such as species interactions, evolution, landscape dispersal barriers, habitat degradation, and intraspecific trait variation, are generally omitted (76).

Predicted extinction risks are lowest for North America and Europe, and highest for South America, Australia and New Zealand (71). The relative high risks for the latter regions are partly due to the fact that these regions harbor diverse assemblages of endemic species with small ranges, and are characterized by small land masses that limit shifts to new habitat (74). Endemic species with smaller ranges and certain taxonomic groups such as amphibians and reptiles are predicted to face greater extinction risks (75).

Mass extinction of amphibians has already been associated with global warming (38). In the mountains of Costa Rica, the Monteverde harlequin frog (Atelopus sp.) vanished along with the golden toad (Bufo periglenes). An estimated 67% of the 110 or so species of Atelopus, which are endemic to the American tropics, have met the same fate, and a pathogenic chytrid fungus (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis) is implicated. Analysing the timing of losses in relation to changes in sea surface and air temperatures, it was concluded with ‘very high confidence’ (>99%, following the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC) that large-scale warming is a key factor in the disappearances. It was proposed that temperatures at many highland localities are shifting towards the growth optimum of Batrachochytrium, thus encouraging outbreaks (38).

It is very difficult, however, to establish causative relationships between warming and population declines or extinction, due to the interaction with other anthropogenic factors such as habitat loss or previously unseen pathogens (57). According to the IPCC, a large fraction of terrestrial and freshwater species face increased extinction risk under projected climate change during and beyond the 21st century, especially as climate change interacts with other pressures, such as habitat modification, over-exploitation, pollution and invasive species (high confidence) (65). On the other hand, local conservation efforts focused on reducing the impact of other stressors can help in maintaining and enhancing ecosystem resilience and in limiting the impact of climate-related effects (70).

Plant migration

Projections suggest that between one fifth and one third of European species could be at increased risk of extinction if global mean temperatures rise more than 2 to 3°C above pre‑industrial levels (17).

A projection has been made of the distribution of 1,350 European plants species under seven climate change scenarios by 2080 (9). The mapped area comprises Western, Northern and Southern Europe, but excludes most of the eastern European countries. More than half of these species are considered to be vulnerable or threatened by 2080. Species from mountains are considered to be disproportionably sensitive to climate change (~60% species loss). The boreal region might lose few species, although gaining many others from immigration (9,68). The greatest changes are expected in the transition between the Mediterranean and Euro-Siberian regions. The researchers found that risks of extinction for European plants may be large, even in moderate scenarios of climate change (9).


The Boreal region could, in principle, gain many species from further south, leading to a high species turnover. The Pannonian region could also theoretically gain eastern Mediterranean species. Thus, these regions stand to lose a substantial part of their plant species diversity, and (in time) to show a major change in floristic composition (9,65). Projected species turnover peaks at the transition between the Mediterranean and continental regions with extirpation of Euro-Siberian species and expansion for Mediterranean or Atlantic species. Southern Fennoscandia is also an area of high potential turnover with the loss of boreal species and gain of Euro-Siberian species. These results cannot be taken as precise forecasts, however, given the uncertainties in climate change scenarios, the coarse spatial resolution of the analysis, and uncertainties in the modeling techniques used (9).

Major future changes in biodiversity have also been concluded from other studies. By 2050, for instance, in 44% of the modeled European area on average 32% of the European plant species might disappear (10). Another modeling exercise projects that by 2050, 80% of the 2,000 (1,350 plants, 157 mammals, 108 reptiles and 383 breeding birds) surveyed current species across Europe would be lost under high greenhouse gas emissions and climate change scenarios (18). The detailed examination of the projections for plants in 2050 under the full range of scenarios suggests that 5% of these species would lose all available habitats (18).

The predicted responses to climate change demonstrate that the distribution of many species in Europe may be affected by climate change, but that the effects are likely to differ between species. The general pattern is of a south-west to north-east shift in suitable climate space, with gains balancing losses for many species. This disparity in species’ response has important implications for EU biodiversity policy as the significance of different countries changes in terms of their future contribution to the conservation of habitats and species (12). Projections indicate that, by the late 21st century, the potential range of many European plant species may shift several hundred kilometres in a northerly direction. This is several times faster than past rates as estimated from the Quaternary record or from historic data (21).

It has also been stated, however, that caution may be required in interpreting results from these models, not least because their coarse spatial scales fail to capture topography or "microclimatic buffering" and they often do not consider the full acclimation capacity of plants and animals. Several recent studies indicate that taking these factors into consideration can seriously alter the model predictions (11).

Many ecosystems in the world, including Europe, suffer already from land-use changes, air pollution, landscape fragmentation and habitat destruction (19,65). These pressures have led to the degraded functioning and species extinction that is at a rate 100–1,000 times greater than is considered normal over history (20).

According to the IPCC, many species will be unable to move fast enough during the 21st century to track suitable climates under mid-and high-range rates of climate change (i.e., RCP 4.5, RCP 6.0 and RCP 8.5 scenarios) (medium confidence). Barriers to dispersal, such as habitat fragmentation, prior occupation of habitat by competing species and human-made impediments such dams on rivers and urbanized areas on land, reduce the ability of species to migrate to more suitable climates (high confidence) (65). Species that cannot move fast enough to keep pace with the rate of climate change will lose favourable climate space and experience large range contractions (66).

Mountains

Species have on average shifted their ranges 16.9 km to higher latitudes and 11 m up in altitude per decade, more than estimates from earlier studies. The average shifts have been larger in those areas that have experienced the strongest warming and have, on average, been sufficient to track temperature changes, but with large variation between species (82). 

An excess of species loss is shown for mountain regions (mid-altitude Alps, midaltitude Pyrenees, central Spain, French Cevennes, Balkans, and Carpathians). The southern Mediterranean and part of the Pannonian regions are characterized by hot and dry summers and are occupied by species that tolerate strong heat and drought. Under the scenarios used here, these species are likely to continue to be well adapted to future conditions. The northern Mediterranean, Lusitanian and Mediterranean mountain regions are the most sensitive regions; the Boreal, northern Alpine and Atlantic regions are consistently less sensitive. Species loss does not necessarily imply the immediate loss of a species from a site; rather it may imply a potential lack of reproductive success and recruitment that will tend to extinction on a longer time scale (9).

For Europe, approximately 2,500 vascular plant species (or approximately 20% of the continent's native vascular flora) were estimated to be centred in the alpine zone from the tree line ecotone to the highest mountain summits (34). This zone comprises only 3% of the terrestrial area of Europe and, hence, limited space would be available for future alpine habitats in warmer climates (33).

A comparison of vegetation samples of 2008 and 2001 above the tree line from 60 summit sites in all major European mountain systems showed that ongoing climate change gradually transforms mountain plant communities; the more cold-adapted species decline and the more warm-adapted species increase, a process described as thermophilization. These results indicate a progressive shrinking of the low-temperature, high-elevation habitats, including parts of the Alps and Mediterranean mountains (33). In fact, declines of extreme high-altitude species at their lower range margins have recently been observed in the Alps (35).

Climate change is considered a large threat to especially montane species. These species often inhabit narrow elevational ranges and it is widely expected that they will be forced to move to higher elevations due to global warming. Generally it is considered that the area decreases with altitude and upslope shifts could leave species with less habitable area as they approach mountain peaks. This would make them more vulnerable to extinction. This line of reasoning, however, seems to be too simple. Scientists have shown that 68% of the world’s mountain ranges do not conform to the dominant assumption in ecology and conservation that area decreases monotonically with elevation from a mountain range’s base (which would be the case if all mountains were shaped like pyramids). Only in a few regions, such as Europe, coastal North America, Southeast Asia and eastern Australia, are pyramid mountains the norm rather than the exception (77). Complex topographies result in landscapes in which available area can actually increase with elevation. Thus, some species responding to climate change by shifting upslope may actually benefit through increases in available area (77). 

An assessment of the impacts of climate change on 2,632 plant species across all major European mountain ranges under four future climate scenarios projected that habitat loss by 2070-2100 will be greater for species distributed
 at higher elevations (152). Depending
 on the climate scenario, up to 36-55 % of Alpine plant species, 31-51 % of sub-Alpine plant species and
 19-46 % of montane plant species are projected to lose more than 80 % of their suitable habitat. Nevertheless, at the finer scale, microclimate heterogeneity may enable species to persist under climate change in so-called micro-climatic refugia (153). 

Flowering

A study based on an enormous systematic phenological network data set of more than 125,000 observational series of 542 plant and 19 animal species in 21 European countries (1971–2000) showed that 78% of all leafing, flowering and fruiting records advanced (30% significantly) and only 3% were significantly delayed, whereas the signal of leaf colouring/fall is ambiguous (6). The average advance of spring/summer was 2.5 days/decade in Europe.


The analysis of 254 mean national time series undoubtedly demonstrated that species’ phenology is responsive to temperature of the preceding months (mean advance of spring/summer by 2.5 days/⁰C, delay of leaf colouring and fall by 1.0 day/⁰C). The pattern of observed change in spring efficiently matches measured national warming across 19 European countries. Owing to the enormous number of records included, the researchers consider their results representative for Europe (6).

Similar results are shown in other studies (see also the overview of the IPCC in (65)). It was shown, for instance, that a nearly Europe-wide warming in the early spring (February–April) over the last 30 years (1969–1998) led to an earlier beginning of growing season by 8 days (7). The observed trends in the onset of spring corresponded well with changes in air temperature and circulation (North Atlantic Oscillation Index (NAO-index)) across Europe. In late winter and early spring, the positive phase of NAO increased clearly, leading to prevailing westerly winds and thus to higher temperatures in the period February–April. Satellite-based estimates showed an advancement of the start of the growing season in northern Europe by 0.30 day/year over the period 2000-2016 (175), although the spatial heterogeneity was large (spanning from an advancement of 1.5 day/year to a delay of 1.0 day/year.

Since the end of the 1980s the changes in circulation, air temperature and the beginning of spring time were striking. The investigation showed that a warming in the early spring (February–April) by 1°C causes an advance in the beginning of growing season of 7 days. The observed extension of growing season was mainly the result of an earlier onset of spring. An increase of mean annual air temperature by 1°C led to an extension of 5 days (7). According to most other studies advancement of the growing season per °C is less, varying from 2.21 day/⁰C to 2.5 day/⁰C (176). 

Geographical variation in advancement of spring flowering

Several studies have shown that one of the responses of plants to global warming is to advance their onset of flowering in spring. The advancement varies for different regions, partly because the rate of global warming is not the same. In the last decades, global warming in Northern Europe and in alpine regions, for instance, was stronger than in other parts of Europe.

The geographical variation in the advancement of spring flowering has been assessed along a north-south trajectory in Europe, covering 12 countries (Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia).  This was done for the first flowering date of six plant species in the period 1970-2010. The trajectory covers 5 different regions: Boreal (cool climate), Continental (especially eastern and central Europe), Alpine (mountain slopes), Pannonian (lowland areas of the Carpathian Basin) and Mediterranean (141).

Advancement in plant flowering onsets was largest in the Boreal regions: 2.2 to 9.6 days per decade. For the Continental and Alpine regions spring advancement was a little smaller: 3 to 8.3 days, and 2 to 3.8 days, respectively. Results were least pronounced for the Pannonian and Mediterranean regions. Generally, spring advancement was more pronounced in 1991-2010 than in 1970-1990 (141). 

Primary Productivity

According to the IPCC, there is high confidence that net terrestrial ecosystem productivity at the global scale has increased relative to the pre-industrial era. There is low confidence in attribution of these trends to climate change. Most studies speculate that rising CO2 concentrations are contributing to this trend through stimulation of photosynthesis, but there is no clear, consistent signal of a climate change contribution (65).

Birds

Climate change has also already influenced the species richness and composition of European bird communities (4,65). A recent study of 122 terrestrial bird species shows that 92 species have declined their populations because of climate change, whereas 30 species have generally increased (5). A northward shift in bird community composition has been observed (69,81).

Climate change is one of the major drivers for changes in bird populations, along with habitat degradation and loss, and illegal killings (87). Many migratory species, including those that overwinter in sub-Saharan Africa, now arrive earlier at their spring breeding grounds in northern Europe (88). However, different organisms do not respond to climate change at the same pace, which has led to an ecological mismatch between some consumers and their prey (89). Data over the past five decades for 117 European migratory bird species revealed a larger population decline for species with a larger mismatch between food availability and consumer requirement (90). Dutch pied flycatchers, which overwinter in sub-Saharan Africa, do not arrive earlier at breeding grounds, but the populations of their insect food peak earlier as a result of warmer spring temperatures. This mismatch between breeding and food availability has caused a decline of up to 90% in Dutch pied flycatcher population sizes (91). 


For migratory birds, the timing of arrival on breeding territories and over-wintering grounds is a key determinant of reproductive success, survivorship, and fitness. Over last 30 years of the previous century in Oxfordshire, U.K., the average arrival and departure dates of 20 migrant bird species have both advanced by 8 days; consequently, the overall residence time in Oxfordshire has remained unchanged. The timing of arrival has advanced in relation to increasing winter temperatures in sub-Saharan Africa, whereas the timing of departure has advanced after elevated summer temperatures in Oxfordshire. This finding demonstrates that migratory phenology is quite likely to be affected by global climate change and links events in tropical winter quarters with those in temperate breeding areas (1).

Earlier arrival dates have also been observed for bird trapping data since 1909 on the island of Helgoland (southeastern North Sea). A relation was found not only with local warmer temperatures, but also with the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO), during the last four decades (2). In late winter and early spring, the positive phase of NAO increased clearly, leading to prevailing westerly winds and thus to higher temperatures in the period February–April (7). For the Lake Constance region (Central Europe) the proportion of long-distance migrants decreased and the number and proportion of short-distance migrants and residents increased between 1980-1981 and 1990-1992, and this was related to increasingly warmer winters (3). According to the researchers, warmer winters lead to declines in numbers of long-distance migrants if resident birds benefit from warmer winters and impose increasing competitive pressure on migrants.

Climatic Envelope Models (CEMs) use the current range where species live to infer climatic requirements (the ‘climatic envelope’) and predict future distribution by establishing envelope movement under climate change scenarios. For all 431 bird species breeding regularly in Europe, future range sizes have been predicted to be 80% of current range sizes, with an average overlap of 39%. Future ranges were predicted to increase for 23.3% of the species, to decrease for 73.3%, and to stay the same for 1.1% of the species. The remaining 2.3% of the species were projected to become extirpated or almost so. According to these results, coastal, wetland and upland birds will be significantly worse off under CEM scenarios than birds associated with woodland, farmland and heathland, while urban birds and those using multiple habitats are doing best (56). CEM as a tool for predicting biotic change is necessarily a simplification, however. There are numerous other, often biotic, factors that influence actual range. Food sources and nest-site availability, as well as competitors, predators and parasites, are likely important factors determining range, but these may be only loosely associated with climate. CEMs also assume that species and the niches will not adapt and that species can move freely to regions with favorable climatic conditions, whereas, in reality, dispersal power might restrict movements (56).

Reptile and amphibians

The limited dispersal ability of many reptile and amphibians, coupled with the fragmentation of ecological networks, is very likely to reduce the ranges of many species (22), particularly those in the Iberian Peninsula and parts of Italy. Furthermore, populations may explode if the young are not exposed to normal predation pressures. Conversely, populations may crash if the emergence of vulnerable young is not in synchrony with their food source or if shorter hibernation times lead to declines in body condition — as evidenced in the lower survival rates of some amphibians (23).

Insects

Bumblebee species seem to fail to move to the north of Europe and North America in response to global warming whereas they lose habitats at the southern range limits of these continents. Climate change appears to contribute distinctively, and consistently, to accumulating range compression among bumblebee species across continents (78). Experimental relocation of bumblebee colonies into new areas could mitigate these range losses.

Insect pests

Insect pests are likely to become more abundant as temperatures increase. As the impacts of climate change on ecosystems favour generalists, and as warmer temperatures increase insect survival and reproduction rates, more frequent, severe and unpredictable pest outbreaks may occur (24).


The range boundary of the pine processionary moth has shifted by 87 km northwards between 1972 and 2004, and (in the Alps of northern Italy) 110-230 m upwards between 1975 and 2004. This observed latitudinal and altitudinal shift was attributed to increased winter survival due to a warming trend over the past three decades (25). The trend of improved survival in previously prohibitive environments is expected to continue, causing further latitudinal and altitudinal expansion.

Terrestrial ecosystems

We can learn from the past to see what lies ahead. Vegetation changes since the last ice age show that vegetation composition and structure is at substantial risk of major changes in the near future. This will disrupt ecosystem services and impact biodiversity. Substantial impacts can only be avoided if global warming does not exceed 1.5°C (154).


About 21,000 years ago the ice sheets reached their maximum extension cover during the last ice age. Global warming between this Last Glacial Maximum and the early Holocene, about 10,000 years ago, was on the order of 4 to 7°C. This is roughly comparable to the magnitude of global warming that is projected for the next 100 to 150 years if the emission of green house gasses is not reduced substantially (155). The magnitudes of changes in vegetation composition and structure since this last glacial period provide an index of the magnitude of ecosystem change that may be expected under warming of similar magnitude in the coming century (156). Although the rate of projected future global warming is at least an order of magnitude greater than that of the last glacial-to-interglacial transition (155), a glacial-to-modern comparison provides a conservative estimate of the extent of ecological transformation to which the planet will be committed under future climate scenarios.

Therefore, 594 published paleoecological records were reviewed to examine compositional and structural changes in terrestrial vegetation since the last glacial period and to project the magnitudes of ecosystem transformations under alternative future emission scenarios (154). The results indicate that terrestrial ecosystems are highly sensitive to temperature change and suggest that, without major reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, terrestrial ecosystems worldwide are at risk of major transformation, with accompanying disruption of ecosystem services and impacts on biodiversity.

The results indicate that the magnitude of past glacial-to-interglacial warming was large enough to drive changes in vegetation composition that were moderate (27% of investigated sites) to large (71%) at most locations across the globe. Changes in vegetation structure were also moderate (28%) to large (67%). Combining these results with future projections of climate change shows that over most of the globe the probability of large compositional change and of large structural change of the vegetation is less than 45% and less than 30%, respectively, under a low-end scenario of climate change (RCP 2.6). By contrast, under a high-end scenario (RCP 8.5), the probabilities of large compositional change and large structural change of the vegetation are both greater than 60%. This high-end scenario projects global warming for a so-called business-as-usually scenario: a scenario in which we do not succeed in reducing our emissions of green house gasses. Under this scenario, the rate of warming will be on the order of 65 times as high as the average warming during the last deglaciation (155).

The analogs of global warming since the last glacial period for on-going and future climate changes are crude. Nevertheless, these results provide concrete evidence that vegetation composition and structure are sensitive to changes in mean annual temperature of the magnitudes forecast for the coming century and that vegetation transformations will become increasingly extensive as temperatures increase. The authors of this study therefore conclude that terrestrial vegetation over the entire planet is at substantial risk of major compositional and structural changes in the absence of markedly reduced emissions of green house gasses. Much of these changes could occur during the 21st century. In fact, observations from around the globe indicate that current climate change may already be driving substantial changes in vegetation composition and structure (65). Impacts on planetary-scale biodiversity, ecological functioning, and ecosystem services will increase substantially if warming exceeds 1.5°C.

Freshwater ecosystems

Several indications of climate impact on the functioning and biodiversity of freshwater ecosystems have already been observed, such as northward movement, phenology changes and invasive alien species. Enhanced harmful algal blooms in lakes resulting from climate change may counteract nutrient load reduction measures. Public health may be threatened and the use of lakes for drinking water and recreation may be reduced (13). According to the IPCC, however, direct human impacts such as land-use and land use change, pollution and water resource development will continue to dominate the threats to most freshwater (high confidence) and terrestrial (medium confidence) ecosystems globally over the next three decades (65). Ecosystem changes resulting from climate change may not be fully apparent for several decades, due to long response times in ecological systems (medium confidence) (65).


Climate change will generally enhance phytoplankton blooms (14) and increase dominance of cyanobacteria in phytoplankton communities, resulting in increased threat of harmful cyanobacteria and enhanced health risks, particularly in water bodies used for public water supply and bathing (15). More frequent extreme precipitation and runoff events are also expected to increase the load of nutrients to waters and in turn result in more eutrophication. Phytoplankton and zooplankton blooms in several European lakes are occurring one month earlier than 30–40 years ago (16).

Environmental impacts of agriculture under a changing climate are considered more and more important. In particular, the role of nitrate leaching on the quality of aquifers, rivers and estuaries is a global problem, now generally recognized (53). Projections made at European level for winter wheat showed for the 2071–2100 period that decreases in N-leaching predominate over large parts of eastern Europe and some smaller areas in Spain, whereas increases occur in the United Kingdom and in smaller regions over many other parts of Europe (54).

Changes in river streamflow and water temperature

Climate change will affect future flow and thermal regimes of rivers. This will directly affect freshwater habitats and ecosystem health. In particular fish species that are strongly adapted to a certain level of flow variability will be sensitive to future changes in flow regime. In addition, all freshwater fish species are exotherms, and increasing water temperatures will therefore directly affect fishes’ biochemical reaction rates and physiology (59). Rising water temperatures also decreases oxygen solubility and increases organic matter decomposition, causing lower dissolved oxygen concentrations (13,60). In addition, remobilisation and bioaccumulation of toxic substances (e.g. mercury) in fish also increase under higher water temperatures (59). Water temperature rises could therefore also affect fish populations and distributions indirectly due to its impacts on other water quality parameters (58).

Climate change significantly affects river flow regimes for 90 % of the global land surface area, compared to 25 % of the land area where flow regime is affected by dams and human water withdrawals (61).

Projections have been made of global streamflow and water temperature changes for 2031–2060 and 2071–2100, compared with the control period 1971–2000, for the SRES A2 and B1 emissions scenarios and 3 Global Climate Models (58). According to these projections, overall, climate change will result in an earlier onset of the high flow (snowmelt) peak, especially in the high northern latitude zone. For 2031–2060 and 2071–2100 this earlier onset is projected to be more than 30 days for 8–10% and 10–12 % of the global surface area respectively, compared with 1971–2000. Substantial declines in mean streamflow are projected for the U.S., Europe, Southeast Asia and southern parts of South America, Africa and Australia. Climate change will further increase river temperatures during the 21st century and will result in strong declines in low (summer) flow for the end of the 21st century in large parts of the world. This combination could in particular threaten fish populations. The loss of areas with suitable freshwater habitat conditions may partly be compensated, however, by areas that will become suitable for freshwater species in the future. A northwards movement of the 21.5 °C-isoline was quantified of approximately 190–400 km for the northern hemisphere; besides, the global surface area where high water temperatures are below 21.5 °C for 95% of the time was shown to reduce from 39 % in 1971–2000 to 32–35 % in 2071–2100 (58). Hence, climate change is likely to reduce the spatial area of suitable habitats of cold water fishes, which could be invaded by cool or warm water species if other habitat requirements (e.g. food availability) are also fulfilled (62).

Changes in lake water temperature and mixing regime

World wide, lake's summer surface temperatures showed an average warming trend of 0.34 °C per decade for the period 1985 - 2009 (83), and an average warming trend of 0.35 °C per decade for annual minimum (winter) lake surface temperatures for the period 1973 - 2014 (194). A long-term study of 24 European lakes revealed a decline in the abundance of cold-stenothermal fish species, particularly in shallow lakes, and an increase in the abundance of eurythermal fish species, even in deep, stratified lakes (84).

Winter temperature is of great importance to lake ecosystems, and the annual minimum temperature sets a strong control on many processes occurring in lakes. Higher winter temperatures have been shown to have a striking and long-lasting influence on lake ecology (195), including the distribution and population dynamics of species (196). Winter lake surface temperatures influence mixing of deep and shallow water layers, and thus the transport of oxygen from surface to deep waters and the transport of dissolved nutrients in the opposite direction. This may affect phytoplankton and zooplankton production, and even fish (197) and could also result in a mismatch of species interactions (198). Lake ecosystem processes can also be influenced through changes in the formation of ice cover (199).

The trend of annual minimum lake surface temperatures in Europe was assessed by studying temperature observations over the period 1973 - 2014 for eight lakes in Europe, situated in Ireland, the UK, Austria and Switzerland. All of these lakes experienced a relatively steady increase in annual minimum lake surface temperature, with an average warming rate of + 0.35 °C per decade (range + 0.12 to + 0.51 °C per decade) (194).

Model simulations of climate change impacts on the mixing of lakes have been carried out for 635 lakes worldwide for a low-end and a relative high scenario of climate change (the so-called RCP 2.6 and RCP 6.0 scenarios, respectively). Changes are projected for 2080-2100 relative to the historic period 1985-2005 (161). Under the high scenario, many lakes are projected to have reduced ice cover; about one-quarter of seasonally ice-covered lakes are projected to be permanently ice-free by 2080-2100. Surface waters are projected to warm, with a median warming across lakes of about 2.5 °C, and the most extreme warming about 5.5 °C, under the high scenario. As a result of these changes, many lakes will mix less frequently in the future in response to climate change. The model simulations suggest that around 100 of the studied lakes are projected to undergo changes in their mixing regimes. About one-quarter of these 100 lakes currently mix once a year and will become permanently stratified systems; about one-sixth currently mix twice per year and will mix once a year in the future.

A lack of vertical mixing by the end of the twenty-first century will result in reduced upwelling of nutrients from deep to shallow waters and a decrease in deep-water oxygen concentrations, which can lead to reduced lake productivity (162) and the formation of deep-water dead zones (163), respectively. There is scattered evidence of mixing regime alterations already taking place, and the ecological consequences of these changes are starting to appear (164).  

Groundwater and dependent ecosystems

Future climate change will affect recharge rates and, in turn, the depth of groundwater levels and the amount of available groundwater for ecosystems (10). Ecosystems will show a more contrasted variation in temperature and nutrient concentrations when fed by local groundwater systems compared with regional ones (64). As a consequence, it is likely that larger systems will be more resilient to climate change (63).

Marine ecosystems

Changes in the oceans until now

The average temperature of the upper layers of the ocean has increased by 0.6°C over the past 100 years (39). Globally, since 1993, the rate of ocean warming has more than doubled (200). Some of the most striking impacts of global climate change have appeared in polar oceans, where temperatures and acidities are changing at more than twice the global average (40, 41).

All European seas have warmed considerably since 1870, and the warming has been particularly rapid since the late 1970s. The multi-decadal rate of sea surface temperature rise during the satellite era (since 1979) has been between 0.21 °C per decade in the North Atlantic and 0.40 °C per decade in the Baltic Sea (146). 

Between 1983 and 2007 the sea surface temperature of the North Sea warmed at rates of up to 0.8°C decade-1, which is an order of magnitude greater than the rate of global warming and among the highest in the world. Increasing air temperature is the main cause of the warming trend observed in the North Sea, accounting for about 75 % of observed changes in sea surface temperature (85). Part of the warming is due to multi-decadal variability; scientists expect this component of the warming to reverse and temperatures in the North Sea to return to lower levels (86). 


The warming of the upper layers of the ocean drives greater stratification of the water column, reducing mixing in some parts of the ocean and consequently affecting nutrient availability and primary production. These changes have increased the size of the nutrient-poor “ocean deserts” of the Pacific and Atlantic by 6.6 million km2, or 15%, over the period 1998 to 2006 (42). General circulation models also predict that oxygen concentrations in the upper layers of the ocean are likely to decrease as a consequence of increasing stratification (44); this is supported by recent observations (43). The uneven distribution of heating of the world’s oceans also strongly influences the behavior of ocean currents (45), which play critical roles in the dynamics, local climates, and biology of the ocean.

The oceans have absorbed approximately one-third of the carbon dioxide produced by human activities (46). A quantification of the oceanic sink for anthropogenic carbon dioxide (CO2) over the period 1994 to 2007 shows an average uptake rate that represents 31 ± 4% of the global anthropogenic CO2 (169). The absorption of anthropogenic CO2 has acidified the surface layers of the ocean, with a steady decrease of 0.02 pH units per decade over the past 30 years and an overall decrease since the pre-industrial period of 0.1 pH units (46). The IPCC concludes that the ocean has taken up between 20-30% of total anthropogenic CO2 emissions since the 1980s causing further ocean acidification (200).

Projected changes in the oceans by 2100

The IPCC concluded that mean ocean surface temperature has increased since the 1970s at a rate of 0.11 (range 0.09 to 0.13) °C per decade, and forms part of a long-term warming of the surface ocean since the mid-19th century (201). By 2100, the top 2000 m of the ocean are projected to take up 2-4 times (low-end scenario of climate change, RCP2.6) or 5-7 times (high-end scenario, RCP8.5) more heat than the observed accumulated ocean heat uptake since 1970 (200)

On a global scale, ocean animal biomass consistently declines with climate change from the year 1970 to 2100. This was concluded from model simulations of six global marine ecosystem models. These models were forced with two global climate models based on four scenarios of climate change: a low-end scenario, two intermediate scenarios and a high-end scenario (RCP2.6, RCP4.5 and RCP6.0, and RCP8.5, respectively). According to the authors of this study, their results represent the most comprehensive outlook on the future of marine animal biomass to date (170).

By 2100, the model simulations indicate a decrease of mean global animal biomass by 5% (±4% SD) under the low-end scenario of climate change and 17% (±11% SD) under the high-end scenario. This agrees with an average 5% decline for every 1 °C of global warming. According to these results, limiting future warming to 1.5 °C to 2.0 °C above preindustrial levels would limit biomass declines to 4 to 6% by 2100, underscoring the potential impact of climate change mitigation according with the Paris Agreement. A comparison with biomass trends of scientifically assessed fish stocks (171) shows that the model simulations reflect observed trends for assessed fish stocks, providing confidence in the future projections.

Increasing temperature and decreasing primary production primarily drive the projected biomass declines. Among others, ocean warming causes increased ocean stratification, which reduces nutrient availability in the upper ocean, leading to decreased primary production and lower energy supply for higher trophic levels (172). Climate change impacts are amplified at higher trophic levels. Fishing at the current levels of intensity does not seem to alter the effects of climate change substantially (170).

Generally, warming waters and enhanced primary production are expected to facilitate species expansions and biomass increases in polar regions, while tropical areas may experience pronounced species losses as thermal thresholds are exceeded. In temperate regions, warming is expected to change species composition, and reduced primary production due to enhanced stratification will result in biomass declines (173). Thus, projected decreases in animal biomass are largest at middle to low latitudes, where many nations depend on seafood and fisheries, and where marine biodiversity is already threatened by multiple human activities (174). In turn, the largest increases are projected at high latitudes, highlighting new opportunities for, and potential conflict over, resource use, but also an urgent need for protecting sensitive species and rapidly changing ecosystems (170).

Declines are similar for all scenarios of climate change through to mid-century, after which they begin to diverge. Thus, the consequences of different scenarios of green house gasses emissions may not be distinguishable over the next two to three decades but differ markedly in the long term (170).

Marine heat waves - globally

The global ocean has warmed substantially over the past century. But that’s not all. In addition to this long-term persistent warming, discrete periods of extreme regional ocean warming, called ‘marine heat waves’, have increased in frequency (166). Satellite observations reveal that marine heatwaves have very likely doubled in frequency between 1982 and 2016, and that they have also become longer-lasting, more intense and extensive. Between 2006 and 2015, 84% to 90% of all globally occurring marine heat waves are attributable to the temperature increase since 1850 - 1900 (201). Marine heat waves have negatively impacted marine organisms and ecosystems in all ocean basins in the first two decades of this century, including critical foundation species such as corals, seagrasses and kelps (201). 

The IPCC concluded that marine heatwaves are projected to further increase in frequency, duration, spatial extent and intensity (maximum temperature). Climate models project increases in the frequency of marine heatwaves by 2081 - 2100, relative to 1850 - 1900, by approximately 20 to 50 times under a low-end (RCP2.6) and high-end scenario of climate change (RCP8.5), respectively (200), largely due to increases in mean ocean temperature (201). The intensity of marine heatwaves is projected to increase about 10-fold under the high-end scenario (RCP8.5) by 2081 - 2100, relative to 1850 - 1900 (200).

Similar to atmospheric heat waves, marine heat waves are defined as periods when daily sea-surface temperatures exceed a threshold for a number of days. In a recent study in Nature Climate Change, the global increase in marine heat wave events and the implications for marine ecosystems have been inventoried (165). The authors defined a marine heat wave as a period of at least 5 consecutive days when sea-surface temperatures exceed the 10% highest temperatures at that part of the ocean at that time of year. Previous research has already shown that, following this definition, the frequency and duration of marine heat waves have increased significantly over the past century across most of the global ocean: on average, there were over 50% more marine heat wave days per year in the period 1987-2016 compared to 1925-1954 (166). The IPCC also concluded that marine heatwaves have very likely doubled in frequency since 1982 and are increasing in intensity (200).

The study shows that marine ecosystems in the southwest Pacific and the mid-west Atlantic are particularly at risk. In addition, regions are at risk where rapid increases in the annual number of marine heat wave days overlap with existing high-intensity non-climate human stressors, such as overfishing and pollution. These regions include the central west Atlantic, the northeast Atlantic and the northwest Pacific. In Europe, recent marine heat waves in the Mediterranean Sea have been linked to local extinctions, decreased rates of natural carbon sequestration, loss of critical habitat and diminished socioeconomic value. Globally, observed increased coral bleaching, decreased sea grass density and decreased kelp biomass were correlated with the increased annual number of heat wave days.

Future projections indicate that marine heat waves will become more frequent, more intense and longer lasting throughout the twenty-first century (167). They may affect entire ecosystems such that they disrupt the provision of ecological goods and services in coming decades. Hundreds of millions of people benefit from these services (168).

Marine heat waves - Mediterranean Sea

In the Mediterranean Sea, unprecedented mass mortality events and changes in marine ecosystems were reported in the summers of 1999 (181), 2003 (182), 2006 (183) and 2008 (184). These impacts were due to extreme warming of sea surface water, called a ‘marine heat wave’.

Marine heat waves are extreme events of abrupt but prolonged periods of high sea surface temperatures at a particular location (185). They can occur anywhere, at any time, with the potential to propagate deeper to the water column (186). A recent study has already identified significant increases in marine heat waves globally over the last century, including the Mediterranean Sea (187). These events may substantially disrupt marine ecosystems, including biodiversity die-offs and tropicalisation of marine communities (188), extensive species migrations (189), strandings of marine mammals and seabirds, toxic algal blooms (190) and extensive coral bleaching (191). In addition, there are major implications for fisheries as well (189).

The current situation

One of the first-detected marine heat waves worldwide occurred in the Mediterranean in the hot summer of 2003. Surface seawater was 2-3 °C warmer than normal at that time of the year, and this event lasted for over a month (192). In 2007, in the eastern Mediterranean, a marine heat wave developed with sea surface temperature more than 5 °C above the mean for the time of year (193).

From observations during 1982 – 2012, characteristics of current marine heat waves were derived. Currently, these events occur 0.8 time a year and last for up to 1.5 months between July and September. Their mean intensity varies from 0.3 to 0.9 °C, which means they are up to 0.9 °C warmer than the mean situation for that time of the year. They cover up to 20-90% of the Mediterranean Sea surface (180).

Future evolution of summer marine heat waves

The future evolution of summer marine heat waves (frequency, duration, intensity and severity) in the Mediterranean Sea was assessed using an ensemble of high-resolution regional climate system models including ocean-atmosphere interactions, driven by GCMs and a multi-scenario approach (low-, moderate and high-end scenarios RCP2.6, RCP4.5 and RCP8.5). The assessment was made for the near future (2021 - 2050) and the far future (2071 - 2100), compared with 1976 - 2005 for reference. In this assessment, an anomalously warm water event is called a marine heat wave when it fulfils certain conditions. It has to last for at least 5 days, for instance, and it must cover at least 20% of the Mediterranean Sea surface (180).

In general, marine heat waves become stronger and more intense in response to increasing greenhouse gas forcing and especially towards the end of the century. By 2100 and under RCP8.5, model simulations project at least one long-lasting marine heat wave event every year, up to three months longer, about 4 times more intense and 42 times more severe than present-day events. They are expected to occur from June-October and to affect at peak the entire Mediterranean basin (180).

These events will impact the vulnerable Mediterranean Sea ecosystems. The widespread consequences from the event of 2003 could become the “new normal”. Under a moderate or high-end scenario of global warming (RCP4.5 and RCP8.5), events with characteristics similar to the observed exceptional 2003 event seem to become the new standard already in the period 2021 - 2050. Especially under the high-end scenario (RCP8.5) and at the end of this century, marine heat waves can become three times longer than the one of 2003, with mean intensities three times higher (180).

Impacts on marine ecosystems

Some of the major impacts of climate change on marine ecosystems are (50, see also 80):

  • Effects on Ecosystem Function. The distribution and abundance of phytoplankton communities throughout the world, as well as their phenology and productivity, are changing in response to warming, acidifying, and stratifying oceans (46, 42). The annual primary production of the world’s oceans has decreased by at least 6% since the early 1980s, with nearly 70% of this decline occurring at higher latitudes (47).
  • Reduced Habitat Complexity. Among the most clear and profound influences of climate change on the world’s oceans are its impacts on habitat-forming species such as corals, sea grass, mangroves, salt marsh grasses, and oysters. Collectively, these organisms form the habitat for thousands of other species. For example, mass coral bleaching and mortality, the result of increasing temperatures, is already reducing the richness and density of coral reef fishes and other organisms (48).
  • Exotic Species. Recent accelerated warming of high-latitude environments has increased the chances that “exotic” marine species being transported from lower latitudes are able to establish themselves and spread (49). A rising number of species are expanding their ranges, often with large-scale impacts on ecosystems at the destination.
  • Diseases.There are large uncertainties about the interplay between ecological dynamics and potential vectors or disease-causing agents, making it difficult to predict whether the incidence of particular diseases will increase or decrease in a warmer and more acidic world (50).
  • Thresholds. Recent evidence suggests that there is now a growing risk that several thresholds will soon be exceeded (51). For example, increasing ocean temperatures and acidities associated with atmospheric CO2 concentrations of 450 parts per million (ppm) represent a serious threat to ecosystems such as coral reefs. In the latter case, temperatures that exceed 2°C above pre-industrial temperatures are very likely to drive an unsustainable frequency of mass coral bleaching and mortality, whereas ocean acidification associated with atmospheric CO2 above 450 ppm will push coral reefs into a negative carbonate balance (48).

Changes in the distribution of fish species associated with European tidal estuaries along the northeast Atlantic seaboard were studied by comparing the mean latitude of distributions according to fish survey data from the 1970s with data from 2004–2007. 55 tidal estuaries from Portugal to Scotland were studied. Among the 15 most common species, 11 displayed a positive difference between current and past mean latitudes suggesting a northward shift of the populations. These results indicate that a number of fish species associated to estuaries seem to have migrated northwards over the last 30 years, possibly due to water warming (55).

Impacts on the Mediterranean Sea

More than 700 non-indigenous marine plant and animal species have been recorded so far in the Mediterranean (157), many of them are favoured by the warmer conditions (158,159). More than 50% of these have entered through the Suez Canal. The eastern Mediterranean is the area displaying the most severe environmental effects from invasive species (160). During the coming decades, more tropical invasive species are expected to find suitable environmental conditions to colonize the entire Mediterranean, spreading the ecological consequences already observed in some areas (160).

Plankton and fish

The distribution and abundance of many fishes and invertebrates have shifted poleward and/or to deeper, cooler waters. Poleward displacements of phyto- and zooplankton have occurred by hundreds of km’s per decade (65,146).


Plankton in the Greater North Sea have shown a northerly movement of about 250 km per decade over the past 40 years which appears to have accelerated since 2000 (145). Very fast rates of northwards movement were observed in the coastal waters of southern Norway from 1997 and 2010. About 1600 benthic marine species were found, and of these 565 species had expanded their distribution northwards along the coast, at rates of 500-800 km per decade (146). Phytoplankton and highly mobile pelagic species are the fastest migrating organisms; their migration rate can be an order of magnitude faster than those of terrestrial species (147). 

Large-scale changes in the biogeography of calanoid copepod crustaceans have been detected in the northeastern North Atlantic Ocean and adjacent seas: a northward extension of warm-water species associated with a decrease in the number of colder-water species. These changes were attributed to a regional increase in sea surface temperature. In addition it was shown that long-term changes in phytoplankton, zooplankton and salmon are highly significantly related to sea surface temperature in the northeastern Atlantic, Northern Hemisphere temperature, and the North Atlantic Oscillation (8).

All biological variables show a pronounced change which started after circa 1982 for euphausiids (decline), 1984 for the total abundance of small copepods (increase), 1986 for phytoplankton biomass (increase) and Calanus finmarchicus (decrease) and 1988 for salmon (decrease). This cascade of biological events led to an exceptional period, which is identified after 1986 to present and followed another shift in large-scale hydro-climatic variables and sea surface temperature. This regional temperature increase therefore appears to be an important parameter that is at present governing the dynamic equilibrium of northeast Atlantic pelagic ecosystems with possible consequences for biogeochemical processes and fisheries (8).

Islands in the Mediterranean Sea

With about 10,000 islands and islets (ca. 250 regularly inhabited by humans), the Mediterranean Sea represents one of the regions of the world with the most islands and archipelagos. Its islands contain a significant component of Mediterranean biodiversity, notably a number of range-restricted species and peculiar vegetation types (143). There are a total of 157 large islands exceeding 10 km2 in size, of which 86 (55%) are located in Greece. Most islands belong to the Greek archipelago with ca. 7600 islands and islets in the Aegean Sea, more than 90% of which cover less than 10 km2, and ca. 300 islands and islets in the Ionian Sea. Croatia is the second country in terms of the number (1246) of islands.


The Mediterranean basin is considered to be one of the regions that will face the largest changes in climate worldwide. The expected temperature increase of 3-5 °C in the Mediterranean this century will strongly increase potential evapotranspiration while annual rainfall will decrease. The expected shifts in vegetation belts resulting from increased aridity and a 3 °C increase in temperature will be an upward shift of ca. 545 m and a 50-80 km northwards shift in latitude (144). These impacts will be exacerbated on islands where no (or insufficient) areas are available for such shifts. The flora and vegetation of the alpine areas and the spatially restricted summit areas of mountain ranges will probably be the most threatened.

So far, there is little evidence for direct depletion or extinction of populations due to climate change on these islands, however. Species appear to be able to cope with drastic climate change thanks to differences in small-scale habitats. The high habitat heterogeneity of Mediterranean-type ecosystems may thus represent an ‘ecological insurance’ for the future persistence of plant species at local scale, allowing species to migrate locally in more favourable ecological niches. Nevertheless, at the scale of small islands, this may not be sufficient to ensure the survival of highly specialized plants (142). 

Ecosystem functioning

Advancements in spring activity may result in asynchrony between food sources and breeding, causing starvation of young that emerge too early, and the disruption of predator‑prey relationships. This so‑called trophic mismatch has been demonstrated for various animal groups, including birds (26), and in some cases is causing crashes or explosions in populations.


At this stage it is extremely difficult to put forward indicators for the economic effects on ecosystems associated with climate change. The problem is potentially severe and economically significant, but that we know relatively little both ecologically and economically about the impacts of future biodiversity loss (13).

Because both the changes in the physical oceanographic environment and marine biological response to the physical changes are poorly understood, it is not possible to make projections for changes in marine biodiversity and ecosystems (13).

According to the IPCC (67), climate change translates into a key risk of large-scale loss of ecosystem services, including water purification by wetlands, removal and sequestration of carbon dioxide by forests, crop pollination by insects, coastal protection by mangroves and coral reefs, regulation of pests and disease, and recycling of waste nutrients.

The influence of the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO)

The North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) is the main source of interannual climate variability in the North Atlantic region. The NAO is essentially a measure of the atmospheric pressure difference between the Icelandic Low and the Azores High. A large pressure gradient between a well-developed Icelandic Low and a strong Azores High (termed a positive NAO) results in a strong westerly air flow on a more northerly track over the eastern North Atlantic and Europe; this brings warm, wet winters to all of Europe except the southern part. When both pressure systems are weak, this is termed a negative NAO, and the westerly air flows are also weak; this results in colder, drier winters in Northern Europe.

NAO is a good predictor of interannual ecological variability, because it is most strongly related to the climate of the Northern Hemisphere during winter and early spring (27), a period of the year that is of critical importance for ecological dynamics, at least in temperate, boreal and arctic regions (28).


The increase in winter temperatures associated with a shift of NAO towards its positive phase in recent years has resulted in a relief from winter stress for many species and populations (29). This has reduced mortality rates during winter, thereby influencing local population dynamics and allowing, for example, the northward expansion of many species. In contrast to winter warming, the recent increase in summer temperature has had fewer ecological consequences, as it has not been large enough to cause an increase in heat stress to critical levels during summer (32).

Consequently, the number of studies reporting range expansions far exceeds the number reporting retractions and local extinctions at southern or low elevation species boundaries (30).

However, things may change. The European summer of 2003 was an example of summer temperatures that did indeed result in widespread drought and heat stress (31). Species and populations might suffer increasingly from heat stress in future, thus increasing the relative importance of range reductions and other adverse effects of global warming in temperate regions (32).

Adaptation strategies

According to the IPCC, the capacity for ecosystems to adapt to climate change can be increased by reducing the other stresses operating on them; reducing the rate and magnitude of climate change; reducing habitat fragmentation and increasing connectivity; maintaining a large pool of genetic diversity and functional evolutionary processes; assisted translocation of slow moving organisms or those whose migration is impeded, along with the species on which they depend; and manipulation of disturbance regimes to keep them within the ranges necessary for species persistence and sustained ecosystem functioning (65).

Adaptation strategies - Framework to support the design of conservation responses

The vulnerability of a species or ecosystem is based on its exposure to climate change, its sensitivity, and its inherent capacity to adapt to change (52). The choice and urgency of biodiversity conservation strategies in response to climate change depends on this vulnerability, as expressed in the figure below (from Dawson et al., 2011, (52)). The diagonal axis broadly reflects increasing intensity of conservation interventions. This axis runs from “laissez-faire” (i.e., let natural processes run their course) to direct, targeted, and often intensive interventions (see also (65)):


  • Strategy “benign neglect” refers to the most adaptable and/or insensitive species and those with low exposure that will need minimal interventions with low-level monitoring.
  • As exposure and sensitivity increase and autonomous-response capability decreases, substantial benefits may result from simply designating new protected areas and undertaking low-level habitat management to reinforce species’ intrinsic dispersal and migration mechanisms.
  • Dynamic placing of buffer zones, removal of barriers, and establishment of corridors or “stepping stones” within a wider landscape may be necessary.
  • In any habitat or community, some species may require specific actions for their conservation or to retain critical biological interactions. Intermediate strategies—including intervention to arrest or divert natural succession or ecosystem regime shifts, maintenance of specific habitats or habitat diversity, and targeted interventions to restore disrupted species interactions (e.g., pollinator or plant-herbivore networks)—are now widely used.
  • Intensive intervention strategies include assisted migration and translocation of species outside their native range. Reestablishment and rewilding involve intensive habitat management to restore critical habitat types, with whole communities recreated from populations surviving elsewhere.
  • Finally, controlled ex situ conservation, involving captive breeding and genetic manipulation in zoological and botanical gardens and recently developed cryogenic seed banks, may contribute to conserving species or populations with a view to future release or reintroduction.

 

Observed responses to paleoclimatic change emphasize the importance of refugia—both macro- and microrefugia—as key landscapes to protect (57).

Within the context of conservation practice, vegetation intactness is more significant than climate stability for ecosystem vulnerability: in terms of ecosystem degradation or species extinctions, reduction in vegetation intactness is a greater threat than climate change at present, and is likely to be in future. Conservation practitioners will have a much greater chance to influence the intactness of an ecosystem rather than its robustness to future climatic conditions (which can only be changed through international mitigation efforts), and therefore a focus on maintaining ecosystem integrity should always be a primary conservation objective (58).

Adaptation strategies - Marine ecosystems

Actions that reduce the flow of nutrients and sediments from coastal catchments, for example, as well as those that reduce activities such as the deforestation of mangroves and the overfishing of key ecological species (e.g., herbivores), will become increasingly important as the impacts of climate change mount. Natural resource management must also remain flexible in order to absorb the sudden and nonlinear changes that are likely to characterize the behavior of most ecosystems into the future (50).

Adaptation strategies - Freshwater ecosystems

To what extent changes in streamflow and thermal habitat conditions will affect species distributions depends on the adaptive capacity of fish populations. More knowledge of these adaptive capacities is needed to develop adaptation strategies. Anthropogenic activities that affect the quality of the river systems habitats, such as water extractions during low flow periods, and thermal pollution, should be minimized (58).

Adaptation strategies - Birds

Any attempt to understand and ameliorate migratory bird losses must consider threats far away from their breeding sites. These threats could include killing and taking, human disturbance at staging sites, pesticide exposure, or collisions with human obstacles such as wind turbines and traffic. Conservation actions needed to halt the decline of these migratory species include the protection of wetlands and woody vegetation, and stopping of illegal taking and killing (92). 

Adaptation strategies - Recommendations for biodiversity conservation

An extensive overview of recommendations for biodiversity conservation under climate change has been drawn-up for biodiversity in Europe (79). For those looking for more detail, please check the list below.


Strengthen reserve networks

  • Increase connectivity
  • Increase number of reserves
  • Protect large areas, increase reserve size
  • Create/manage buffer zones around reserves
  • Create ecological reserve networks, large reserves, connected by small reserves and stepping stones
  • Institute flexible zoning around reserves
  • Secure boundaries of existing reserves
  • Protect many small reserves rather than single large
  • Create linear reserves oriented longitudinally

Promote the resilience and adaptive capacity of ecosystems

  • Practice adaptive management
  • Improve techniques for and do more restoration wetlands, rivers, matrix
  • Soften land use practices in the matrix
  • Re-asses conservation goals
  • Adopt long-term and regional perspective in planning, modeling, and management
  • Broaden genetic and species diversity in restoration and forestry
  • Develop adaptation strategies now; early adaptation is encouraged
  • Manage for flexibility, use of portfolio of approaches, maintain options
  • Preserve genetic diversity in populations
  • Represent each species in more than one reserve
  • Institute government reform (i.e. adaptive governance)
  • Maintain natural disturbance dynamics of ecosystems
  • Proactive habitat management to mitigate warming
  • Manage the matrix
  • Anticipate surprises and threshold effects i.e. major extinctions or invasions
  • Design biological preserves for complex changes in time, not just directional change
  • Study and protect metapopulations
  • Protect functional groups and keystone species
  • Adjust park boundaries to capture anticipated movement of critical habitats
  • Create institutional flexibility
  • Manage for landscape asynchrony
  • Manage populations to reduce temporal fluctuations in population sizes

Establishing additional conservation areas to better account for climate change impacts

  • Protect full range of bioclimatic variation
  • Protect current and predicted future refugia
  • Locate reserves in areas of high heterogeneity, endemism
  • Locate reserves at northern boundary of species’ ranges
  • Protect mountains
  • Protect primary forests
  • Protect urban green space
  • Increase wetland protection
  • Focus protection on sensitive biomes
  • Locate reserves so that major vegetation transitions are in core
  • Locate reserves at core of ranges

Reduce pressures on ecosystems

  • Mitigate other threats, i.e. invasive species, fragmentation, pollution
  • Do not implement CO2 emission mitigation projects that negatively impact biodiversity
  • Limit CO2 emissions
  • Strategic zoning of land use to minimize climate related impacts
  • Schedule dam release to protect stream temperatures

Heavy human intervention (‘kiss-of-life’ options)

  • Practice intensive management to secure populations
  • Translocate species
  • Protect endangered species ex situ
  • Establish neo-native forests plant species where they were in the past, but are not found currently

Other

  • Integrate climate change into planning excercises
  • Improve inter-agency, regional coordination
  • Increase and maintain monitoring programmes
  • Increase interdisciplinary collaboration
  • Promote conservation policies that engage local users and promote healthy human communities
  • Do regional impact assessments
  • Leadership by those with power senior management, government agencies
  • Create education programmes for public and land use practices and effects on and with climate
  • Develop best management practices for climate change scenarios
  • Increase investment in climate related research
  • Create culturally appropriate adaptation/management options
  • Initiate dialogue among stakeholders
  • Use predictive models to make decisions on where to situate new reserves
  • Provide education opportunities and summaries of primary literature for management staff to learn and network about climate change
  • Action plans must be time-bound and measurable
  • Establish cross-national collaboration
  • Focus on annuals rather than perennials near climate boundaries
  • Institutional capacity enhancement to address climate change
  • Institute reform to improve support for interdisciplinary, multi-institutional research
  • Manage human-wildlife contact as change occurs
  • Increase social acceptance of shared resilience goals
  • Promote personal action plans among employees to reduce emissions
  • Use caution in predictive modelling because the responses of some species are not well predicted
  • Use simple decision rules for reserve planning
  • Use social networks for education about climate change
  • Use triage in short-term to priotize action

References

The references below are cited in full in a separate map 'References'. Please click here if you are looking for the full references for Europe.

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