A globally coherent fingerprint of climate change impacts across natural systems

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Causal attribution of recent biological trends to climate change is complicated because non-climatic influences dominate local, short-term biological changes. Any underlying signal from climate change is likely to be revealed by analyses that seek systematic trends across diverse species and geographic regions; however, debates within the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reveal several definitions of a ‘systematic trend’. Here, we explore these differences, apply diverse analyses to more than 1,700 species, and show that recent biological trends match climate change predictions. Global meta-analyses documented significant range shifts averaging 6.1 km per decade towards the poles (or metres per decade upward), and significant mean advancement of spring events by 2.3 days per decade. We define a diagnostic fingerprint of temporal and spatial ‘sign-switching’ responses uniquely predicted by twentieth century climate trends. Among appropriate long-term/large-scale/multi-species data sets, this diagnostic fingerprint was found for 279 species. This suite of analyses generates ‘very high confidence’ (as laid down by the IPCC) that climate change is already affecting living systems.

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Figure 1: Probabilistic model based on parameter estimates from a review of the literature.


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This paper was stimulated by discussion during meetings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, particularly with Q. K. Ahmad, N. Leary, R. Leemans, R. Moss, J. Price, T. L. Root, C. Rosenzweig, S. Schneider, R. Tol, F. Toth and R. Warrick. We thank L. Kaila, J. Kullberg, J. J. Lennon, N. Ryrholm, C. D. Thomas, J. A. Thomas and M. Warren for use of their raw data for analyses. We also thank C. Krebs, J. Matthews, R. Plowes, J. A. Pounds, R. Sagarin, M. C. Singer and B. Wee. Writing was facilitated by the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CEFE) and by the National Science Foundation of the United States through its support of the Center for Integrated Assessment of the Human Dimensions of Global Change at Carnegie Mellon University.

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Correspondence to Camille Parmesan.

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