Global imprint of climate change on marine life

Journal name:
Nature Climate Change
Year published:
Published online

Past meta-analyses of the response of marine organisms to climate change have examined a limited range of locations1, 2, taxonomic groups2, 3, 4 and/or biological responses5, 6. This has precluded a robust overview of the effect of climate change in the global ocean. Here, we synthesized all available studies of the consistency of marine ecological observations with expectations under climate change. This yielded a meta-database of 1,735 marine biological responses for which either regional or global climate change was considered as a driver. Included were instances of marine taxa responding as expected, in a manner inconsistent with expectations, and taxa demonstrating no response. From this database, 81–83% of all observations for distribution, phenology, community composition, abundance, demography and calcification across taxa and ocean basins were consistent with the expected impacts of climate change. Of the species responding to climate change, rates of distribution shifts were, on average, consistent with those required to track ocean surface temperature changes. Conversely, we did not find a relationship between regional shifts in spring phenology and the seasonality of temperature. Rates of observed shifts in species’ distributions and phenology are comparable to, or greater, than those for terrestrial systems.

At a glance


  1. Global distribution and regional location of marine ecological climate-impact studies.
    Figure 1: Global distribution and regional location of marine ecological climate-impact studies.

    a, Observed responses (n=1,735) of marine organisms to climate change from 208 single- and multispecies studies showing responses that are consistent with climate change (blue, n=1,092), opposite to those expected (red, n=225) or are equivocal (yellow, n=418). Each circle represents the centre of a study area. Where points fall on land, it is because they are centroids of distribution that surround an island or peninsula. Pie charts show the proportions within regions bounded by red squares and in the Mediterranean Sea; numbers indicate the total (consistent, opposite plus equivocal) observations within each region. b, Frequency of observations and ocean area by 5° latitudinal bins; red dotted line shows the proportion of ocean area within each latitudinal bin. cf, Observations from the Southwest Pacific (c), Northeast Atlantic, North Sea and Mediterranean Sea (d), California Current (e) and Northwest Atlantic (f).

  2. Global response rates to climate change by taxon.
    Figure 2: Global response rates to climate change by taxon.

    a,b, Rates of change (means±s.e.m.) of marine taxonomic or functional groups in distribution at the leading edges (red circles), trailing edges (brown triangles) and from all data regardless of range location (black squares) (a), with axis scale on square-root for display, so standard errors are asymmetric, and phenology during spring (red circles) and summer (brown triangles) (b). Negative phenological changes (generally earlier) and positive distribution changes (generally poleward into previously cooler waters) are consistent with warming. Sample sizes (n) are given above each taxon or functional group (a, leading edges upper row, trailing edge lower row; b, spring upper row).

  3. Marine biological responses as a function of the velocity of climate change and seasonal climate shift.
    Figure 3: Marine biological responses as a function of the velocity of climate change and seasonal climate shift.

    a, Magnitude of observed shifts in species distributions for marine taxonomic or functional groups against expected magnitude. Two hundred and seventy-nine observed shifts taken from 36 published studies (null responses excluded). b, Observed shifts in spring phenology (daysdec−1) for marine taxonomic or functional groups against expected shift in spring phenology taken as shift in seasonal sea surface temperatures. Fifty-one observed shifts taken from 17 published studies. Expected distributional and phenology shifts over 1960–2009 calculated using the Hadley Centre data set (HadlSST 1.1) and methods presented in ref. 8. April temperatures used for Northern Hemisphere spring phenology and October temperatures for Southern Hemisphere phenology.

  4. Proportion of marine observations consistent with climate change predictions using observations from both single- and multispecies studies (all,
n[thinsp]=[thinsp]1,323) and multispecies studies alone (n[thinsp]=[thinsp]1,151).
    Figure 4: Proportion of marine observations consistent with climate change predictions using observations from both single- and multispecies studies (all, n=1,323) and multispecies studies alone (n=1,151).

    ac, Mean and standard error of responses by taxonomic or functional group (a), latitudinal zone (b) and response type (c) show significantly higher consistency than expected from random as determined by binomial tests for each estimate against 0.5 (dashed line at 50% consistency). The vertical solid lines are the means across all observations. Significance of results is listed next to labels (***, p<0.001; **, p<0.01; *, p<0.05). Sample sizes are listed to the right of each row.


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  1. Climate Adaptation Flagship, CSIRO Marine and Atmospheric Research, Ecosciences Precinct, GPO Box 2583, Brisbane, Queensland 4102, Australia

    • Elvira S. Poloczanska,
    • Christopher J. Brown &
    • Anthony J. Richardson
  2. School of Biological Sciences, The University of Queensland, St Lucia, Queensland 4072, Australia

    • Christopher J. Brown
  3. Farallon Institute for Advanced Ecosystem Research, 101 H Street, Suite Q, Petaluma, California 94952, USA

    • William J. Sydeman &
    • Sarah Ann Thompson
  4. Museum für Naturkunde, Leibniz Institute for Research on Evolution and Biodiversity, Invalidenstrasse 43, 10115 Berlin, Germany

    • Wolfgang Kiessling
  5. GeoZentrum Nordbayern, Paläoumwelt, Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg, Loewenichstr. 28, 91054 Erlangen, Germany

    • Wolfgang Kiessling
  6. Faculty of Science, Health and Education, University of the Sunshine Coast, Maroochydore, Queensland 4558, Australia

    • David S. Schoeman
  7. Department of Zoology, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, Port Elizabeth 6031, South Africa

    • David S. Schoeman
  8. Centre for Marine Ecosystems Research, Edith Cowan University, Perth, Western Australia 6027, Australia

    • Pippa J. Moore
  9. Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences, Aberystwyth University, Aberystwyth SY23 3DA, UK

    • Pippa J. Moore
  10. DTU Aqua—Centre for Ocean Life, Technical University of Denmark, Charlottenlund Slot, DK-2920 Charlottenlund, Denmark

    • Keith Brander
  11. Department of Biology, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina 27599, USA

    • John F. Bruno &
    • Lauren B. Buckley
  12. Scottish Association for Marine Science, Scottish Marine Institute, Oban, PA37 1QA, UK

    • Michael T. Burrows
  13. Department of Global Change Research, IMEDEA (UIB-CSIC), Instituto Mediterráneo de Estudios Avanzados, 07190 Esporles, Mallorca, Spain

    • Carlos M. Duarte &
    • Johnna Holding
  14. The UWA Oceans Institute, University of Western Australia, 35 Stirling Highway, Crawley 6009, Western Australia, Australia

    • Carlos M. Duarte
  15. National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, 735 State Street, Suite 300, Santa Barbara, California 93101, USA

    • Benjamin S. Halpern &
    • Carrie V. Kappel
  16. University of British Columbia, Department of Zoology, Vancouver, British Columbia V6T 1Z4, Canada

    • Mary I. O’Connor
  17. Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, School of Biological Sciences, The University of Queensland, St Lucia, Queensland 4072, Australia

    • John M. Pandolfi
  18. Integrative Biology, Patterson Laboratories 141, University of Texas, Austin, Texas 78712, USA

    • Camille Parmesan
  19. Marine Institute, A425 Portland Square, Drake Circus, University of Plymouth, Plymouth PL4 8AA, UK

    • Camille Parmesan
  20. Office of Sustainable Fisheries, NOAA Fisheries Service, 1315 East–West Hwy, Silver Spring, Maryland 20910-3282, USA

    • Franklin Schwing
  21. Centre for Applications in Natural Resource Mathematics (CARM), School of Mathematics and Physics, University of Queensland, St Lucia, Queensland 4072, Australia

    • Anthony J. Richardson
  22. Present Address: Global Change Institute, The University of Queensland, St Lucia, Queensland 4072, Australia

    • Christopher J. Brown


E.S.P. and A.J.R. led the NCEAS working group. E.S.P., A.J.R., C.J.B., P.J.M., S.A.T. and W.J.S. extracted data from publications for the database. E.S.P., A.J.R. and C.B. undertook quality-control of the database. E.S.P., C.P. and W.J.S. wrote the first draft of the paper. W.K., C.J.B., A.J.R., M.T.B., E.S.P. and D.S.S. ran analyses and produced figures and tables. All authors contributed equally to discussion of ideas, development of the database and analyses, and commented on the manuscript.

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