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. Climate change may benefit some species and cause extinction for others. Cumulatively, it will alter biological communities and the functioning of ecosystems. 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.

  • Changes in climate 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 to cope with the challenges posed by new environmental conditions, or, if climate changes too rapidly, by going extinct.

  • Analysing recent trends give us 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 also be changes that 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.

Much of the geographic range of species can be explained by climate. In the example shown above, Northern Bobwhite are widespread across the southern two‐thirds of the eastern United States. The map on left 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. The figure on the right 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 Bobwhite are found, while the light grey squares represent combinations of temperature and precipitation found in the eastern United States where Northern Bobwhite are absent. Reproduced with permission from Matthews SN, Iverson, LR, Prasad AM and Peters MP (2007). A Climate Change Atlas for 147 Bird Species of the Eastern United States [database]. Northern Research Station, USDA Forest Service, Delaware, OH.

Figure 2.

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 in 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 habitat 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 cases 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 with permission from: Prasad AM, Iverson LR, Matthews S and Peters M (2007). A Climate Change Atlas for 134 Forest Tree Species of the Eastern United States [database]. Northern Research Station, USDA Forest Service, Delaware, OH.

Figure 3.

The Aspen FACE (Free Air Carbon Dioxide Enrichment) Experiment is growing 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. Photograph by JP McCarty.


Further Reading

Björk RG and Molau U (2007) Ecology of alpine snowbeds and the impact of global warming. Arctic, Antarctic, and Alpine Research 39: 34–43.

Bradley KL and Pregitzer KS (2007) Ecosystem assembly and terrestrial carbon balance under elevated CO2. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 22: 538–547.

IPCC (2007) Climate change 2007: impacts, adaptation and vulnerability. In: Parry ML, Canziani OF, Palutikof JP, van der Linden PJ and Hanson CE (eds) Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, p. 976. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

IPCC (2007) Climate change 2007: synthesis report. In: Core Writing Team, Pachauri RK and Reisinger A (eds) Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, p. 104. Geneva, Switzerland: IPCC.

Jurasinski G and Kreyling J (2007) Upward shift of alpine plants increases floristic similarity of mountain summits. Journal of Vegetation Science 18: 711–718.

Lovejoy TE and Hannah L (2005) Climate Change and Biodiversity. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

McCarty JP (2001) Ecological consequences of recent climate change. Conservation Biology 15: 320–331.

Pounds JA, Bustamante MR, Coloma LA et al. (2006) Widespread amphibian extinctions from epidemic disease driven by global warming. Nature 439: 161–167.

Reading CJ (2007) Linking global warming to amphibian declines through its effects on female body condition and survivorship. Oecologia 151: 125–131.

Willmer P, Stone G and Johnston I (2005) Environmental Physiology of Animals, Second Edition. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing. 754pp.

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McCarty, John P, Wolfenbarger, L LaReesa, and Wilson, James A(Mar 2009) Biological Impacts of Climate Change. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0020480]