Biological Impacts of Climate Change


Climate has far reaching impacts on biological systems. Survival and reproduction depend on how well adapted individuals are to local climate patterns. Climate change can disrupt the match between organisms and their local environment, reducing survival and reproduction and causing subsequent impacts on populations or species' distributions across geographic regions. Changes in climate may benefit some species and cause extinction for others. Cumulatively, it will alter biological communities and the functioning of ecosystems. Changes to ecosystem functions can in turn increase or decrease the rate of human‐driven climate change. In addition to effects of climate variables such as temperature and precipitation, plants may respond directly to rising concentrations of CO2, while aquatic species cope with changes in water chemistry as greenhouse gasses dissolve in water. The earth is already experiencing sufficient climate change to affect biological systems; well‐documented changes in plant and animal populations are related to recent climate change. Predicting future biological impacts of climate change remains a formidable challenge for science.

Key Concepts

  • Climate has a pervasive influence on individual plants and animals, populations, communities and entire ecosystems.
  • Changes in climate will have far reaching effects on all aspects of biology.
  • Climatic changes over the past several decades have already produced measurable changes in biological systems worldwide.
  • Species can respond to climate change by moving to areas where climate is favourable, by evolving and adapting to new environmental conditions, or, if climate changes too rapidly, by going extinct.
  • Analysing recent trends provides a certainty that changes will occur in biological systems valued by humans. Many of those changes will have negative impacts on human well‐being but there will be changes that will also benefit people.
  • Scientists try to predict how biological systems will change by analysing past changes in response to climate change, by conducting experiments and by constructing models.
  • Uncertainty in predictions of biological change comes both from uncertainty about the rate of future climate change and from uncertainty about the direct and indirect effects of climate change on biological systems.

Keywords: global climate change; conservation; extinction; ecosystem models; phenology

Figure 1. The current geographic range of species is limited to areas with a suitable climate (a). As climate changes and the areas with suitable climate shift towards the poles, species will respond in different ways. For some species, geographic distributions might shift to track changes in suitable climate, with little change in the overall size of their range (b). However, for other species the area of suitable habitat may decline (c), or their ability to shift their geographic range to take advantage of new areas may be limited by physical barriers such as mountains or bodies of water (d) or restrictions on the movement of individuals that limit the ability to disperse (e). However, other factors besides climate can influence future geographic distributions. For example, some species will evolve to adapt to new climatic conditions and remain in their current geographic range, while interactions with competitors, predators and pathogens might prevent species from using areas with newly suitable habitat (f). Finally, species that are unable to respond adequately to new climatic conditions or whose suitable habitat becomes too small (c) will go extinct. Reproduced with permission from Lambers © The American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Figure 2. Much of the geographic range of species can be explained by climate. In the example shown above, Northern Bobwhites are widespread across the southern two‐thirds of the eastern United States. (a) The map shows their geographic range and relative abundance based on the North American Breeding Bird Survey. USDA Forest Service scientists evaluated the geographic distribution of Northern Bobwhite (and 146 other bird species) against information about the climate and vegetation in the eastern United States. The importance of different climate and habitat variables in explaining geographic range depends on the bird species. (b) Illustration shows the combination of temperature and precipitation found in the eastern United States. The coloured cells indicated the combinations of temperature and precipitation where Northern Bobwhites are found, while the light grey squares represent combinations of temperature and precipitation found in the eastern United States where Northern Bobwhites are absent. Reproduced from Matthews et al. © USDA Forest Service.
Figure 3. Mathematical models provide one approach for helping us understand how changes in climate will impact biological systems. These maps show the current geographic range of forest types as well as modelled output based on current climate and two scenarios of future climate. Current forest types (panel a) are based on the USDA Forest Service's Forest Inventory Analysis (FIA) data. Information about the geographic range of 134 tree species was evaluated against 38 environmental variables to generate predictive models. The utility of the models can be evaluated by inserting current climate conditions into the models and comparing the output (panel b) to current distributions of forest types (panel a). The general correlation between the actual current FIA data and the modelled current distributions indicates that much of the variation where the forest types occur can be explained by combinations of climate variables. This correlation also suggests that the Forest Service model can be used to model potential habitats under future climate conditions. The scientists took the output from three widely used global climate models under two scenarios used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The ‘Low’ scenario assumes that emissions of greenhouse gasses will be significantly reduced, while the ‘High’ scenario assumes that current emission trends will continue. Panels (c) and (d) show how the potential habitat for forests might change in the future. Note in particular the loss of potential habitat for northern forest types such as Spruce‐Fir forests that are currently found in the northern tier of states but which might disappear in the future. Reproduced from Prasad et al. © USDA Forest Service
Figure 4. Experimental approaches for studying the effects of climate change on biological systems. (a) Species may respond directly to warming associated with climate change. Open Top Chambers are designed to passively warm vegetation plots with a simple, inexpensive system that can be replicated across many sites as part of the International Tundra Experiment (ITEX; Elmendorf et al., ). Reproduced with permission from R Hollister. (b) Changes in precipitation patterns can be manipulated using shelters such as these deployed in a salt marsh as part of study to study the response of ecosystem processes such as plant growth and nutrient cycling. Reproduced with permission from H Emery. (c) Plants may respond directly to changes in concentrations of greenhouse gasses such as carbon dioxide. The Aspen FACE (Free Air Carbon Dioxide Enrichment) Experiment exposed trembling aspen trees in the open under carbon dioxide levels similar to those expected to occur late in the twenty‐first century. The pipes surrounding the growing trees release carbon dioxide, mimicking the effects of altered atmosphere in a field setting where plants interact with each other and with other environmental variables in a natural setting. Photo by JP McCarty. (d) The TasFACE experimental system combines the FACE technology with infrared heaters to simulate warming and altered atmospheric gasses simultaneously. Reproduced with permission from M Hovenden.
Figure 5. As climate changes, the community of species present in a given area is also expected to change. Langham et al. modelled the possible changes in the geographic distributions of 588 North American bird species by 2080 under one possible emission scenario (SRES A2). Impacts vary both geographically and between the breeding and nonbreeding seasons. As expected, most areas are projected to lose species of birds during both the breeding and nonbreeding season (a). At the same time, areas will gain new species as the distributions of breeding birds shift north and as species that currently winter further south remain in the region during the nonbreeding season (b). The overall change in community composition, represented here by the Bray–Curtis dissimilarity index, demonstrates the change in the local composition of communities expected, especially in the north and the mountainous regions of western North America (c). Reproduced from Langham et al. under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License.


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Further Reading

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McCarty, John P, Wolfenbarger, L LaReesa, and Wilson, James A(Mar 2017) Biological Impacts of Climate Change. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0020480.pub2]