Article | Published:

Attributing physical and biological impacts to anthropogenic climate change

Nature volume 453, pages 353357 (15 May 2008) | Download Citation



Significant changes in physical and biological systems are occurring on all continents and in most oceans, with a concentration of available data in Europe and North America. Most of these changes are in the direction expected with warming temperature. Here we show that these changes in natural systems since at least 1970 are occurring in regions of observed temperature increases, and that these temperature increases at continental scales cannot be explained by natural climate variations alone. Given the conclusions from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report that most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-twentieth century is very likely to be due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations, and furthermore that it is likely that there has been significant anthropogenic warming over the past 50 years averaged over each continent except Antarctica, we conclude that anthropogenic climate change is having a significant impact on physical and biological systems globally and in some continents.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.


  1. 1.

    IPCC. in Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adapation and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (eds, Parry, M. L., Canziani, O. F., Palutikof, J. P., van der Linden, P. J. & Hanson, C. E.) 7–22 (Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, UK, 2007)

  2. 2.

    et al. in Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (eds Parry, M. L., Canziani, O. F., Palutikof, J. P., van der Linden, P. J. & Hanson, C. E.) 79–131 (Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, UK, 2007)

  3. 3.

    & in Occasional Paper No. 58 (Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, Univ. Colorado at Boulder, 2005)

  4. 4.

    Extracting a climate signal from 169 glacier records. Science 308, 675–677 (2005)

  5. 5.

    , , & Interdecadal changes in seasonal freeze and thaw depths in Russia. J. Geophys. Res. 109 D05101 10.1029/2003JD004245 (2004)

  6. 6.

    & Shrinking thermokarst ponds and groundwater dynamics in discontinuous permafrost near Council, Alaska. Permafrost Periglac. Process. 14, 151–160 (2003)

  7. 7.

    , , , & Changes in the onset of spring in the western United States. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 82, 399–415 (2001)

  8. 8.

    , , & Declining mountain snowpack in western north America. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 86, 39–49 (2005)

  9. 9.

    , , , & Climate change decreases aquatic ecosystem productivity of Lake Tanganyika, Africa. Nature 424, 766–768 (2003)

  10. 10.

    , & Lake diatom response to recent Arctic warming in Finnish Lapland. Glob. Change Biol. 8, 171–181 (2002)

  11. 11.

    , , & Long-term changes within the invertebrate and fish communities of the Upper Rhone River: effects of climatic factors. Glob. Change Biol. 10, 124–140 (2004)

  12. 12.

    & The impact of climate change on an emerging coastline affected by discontinuous permafrost: Manitounuk Strait, northern Quebec. Can. J. Earth Sci. 40, 1393–1404 (2003)

  13. 13.

    , , & Storms and shoreline retreat in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence. Mar. Geol. 210, 169–204 (2004)

  14. 14.

    , , , & Increasing activity of coastal processes associated with climate change in Estonia. J. Coast. Res. 19, 364–375 (2003)

  15. 15.

    et al. Fingerprints of global warming on wild animals and plants. Nature 421, 57–60 (2003)

  16. 16.

    & A globally coherent fingerprint of climate change impacts across natural systems. Nature 421, 37–42 (2003)

  17. 17.

    et al. European phenological response to climate change matches the warming pattern. Glob. Change Biol. 12, 1969–1976 (2006)

  18. 18.

    Ecological and evolutionary responses to recent climate change. Ann. Rev. Ecol. Evol. System. 37, 637–669 (2006)

  19. 19.

    & Climate impact on plankton ecosystems in the Northeast Atlantic. Science 305, 1609–1612 (2004)

  20. 20.

    & Impact of climate change on marine pelagic phenology and trophic mismatch. Nature 430, 881–884 (2004)

  21. 21.

    & Long-term changes in phytoplankton, zooplankton and salmon related to climate. Glob. Change Biol. 9, 801–817 (2003)

  22. 22.

    , , & Long-term decline in krill stock and increase in salps within the Southern Ocean. Nature 432, 100–103 (2004)

  23. 23.

    et al. in Climate Change 2001: The Scientific Basis, Contribution of Working Group I to the Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (ed. Houghton, J. T.) 695–738 (Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, UK, 2001)

  24. 24.

    , , & Human-modified temperatures induce species changes: joint attribution. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 102, 7465–7469 (2005)

  25. 25.

    , & Recent glacier retreat exceeds internal variability. J. Clim. 15, 3069–3081 (2002)

  26. 26.

    , & Global pattern of trends in streamflow and water availability in a changing climate. Nature 438, 347–350 (2005)

  27. 27.

    , & Human influence on increasing Arctic river discharges. Geophys. Res. Lett. 32, L02703 (2005)

  28. 28.

    , , & Detecting the effect of climate change on Canadian forest fires. Geophys. Res. Lett. 31 L18211 10.1029/2004GL020876 (2004)

  29. 29.

    , , & Geographic and temporal variability in phenology. Glob. Ecol. Biogeogr. 15, 498–504 (2006)

  30. 30.

    IPCC. in Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (eds Solomon, S. D. et al.) (Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, UK, 2007)

  31. 31.

    et al. in Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (eds Solomon, S. et al.) 663–745 (Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, UK, 2007)

  32. 32.

    , & Growth and phenology of mature temperate forest trees in elevated CO2. Glob. Change Biol. 12, 848–861 (2006)

  33. 33.

    et al. A comparison of a GCM response to historical anthropogenic land cover change and model sensitivity to uncertainty in present-day land cover representations. Clim. Dyn. 25, 581–609 (2005)

  34. 34.

    , , , & Effects of land cover conversion on surface climate. Clim. Change 52, 29–64 (2002)

  35. 35.

    , , , & Uncertainty estimates in regional and global observed temperature changes: A new data set from 1850. J. Geophys. Res. 111 D12106 10.1029/2005JD006548 (2006)

  36. 36.

    Variability and trends of sub-continental scale surface climate in the 20th century. Part I: observations. Clim. Dyn. 18, 675–691 (2002)

  37. 37.

    Attribution of regional-scale temperature changes to anthropogenic and natural causes. Geophys. Res. Lett. 30, 1728 (2003)

  38. 38.

    IPCC. (ed.) Climate Change 2001: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability: Contribution of Working Group II to the Third Assessment Report to the International Panel on Climate Change (Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, UK, 2001)

  39. 39.

    & A global merged land and sea surface temperature reconstruction based on historical observations (1880–1997). J. Clim. 18, 2021–2036 (2005)

Download references


We thank J. Palutikof, D. Rind and A. Watkinson for their feedback, and J. Mendoza for work on the graphics. The Goddard Institute for Space Studies authors acknowledge the support of the Earth Science Division, NASA Science Mission Directorate. D.K. is supported by the Australian Research Council as a Federation Fellow. Q.W. is supported by a Gary Comer Science and Education Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship and by the National Science Foundation grant ATM-0555326. We acknowledge the Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison (PCMDI) and the WCRP’s Working Group on Coupled Modelling (WGCM) for their roles in making available the multi-model data set. Support of this data set is provided by the Office of Science, US Department of Energy.

Author Contributions C.R., D.K., G.C., A.M., T.L.R., B.S., P.N. and M.V. conceived the analytical framework; P.N., M.V., A.M. and N.E. constructed the database; M.V., D.K. and Q.W. performed the statistical analyses; G.C., A.M., T.L.R., P.T., B.S., C.L. and S.R. provided expertise in observed changes in physical and biological systems; and P.N., A.M., C.R. and A.I. analysed other driving forces.

Author information


  1. NASA/Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Columbia Center for Climate Systems Research, 2800 Broadway, New York, New York 10025, USA

    • Cynthia Rosenzweig
    • , Marta Vicarelli
    •  & Peter Neofotis
  2. School of Earth Sciences, University of Melbourne, Victoria 3010, Australia

    • David Karoly
  3. School of Meteorology, University of Oklahoma, 100 East Boyd Street, Norman, Oklahoma 73019, USA

    • Qigang Wu
  4. Centro de Estudios Científicos, Avenida Arturo Prat 514, Casilla 1469, Valdivia, Chile

    • Gino Casassa
  5. Center of Life and Food Sciences Weihenstephan, Technical University of Munich, Am Hochanger 13, 85 354 Freising, Germany

    • Annette Menzel
    •  & Nicole Estrella
  6. Stanford University, Center for Environmental Science and Policy, Stanford, California 94305, USA

    • Terry L. Root
  7. INRA Unité Agroclim, Site Agroparc, domaine Saint-Paul, F-84914 Avignon Cedex 9, France

    • Bernard Seguin
  8. Department of Behavioural Ecology, Institute of Environmental Biology, Adam Mickiewicz University, Umultowska 89, PL-61–614 Poznan, Poland

    • Piotr Tryjanowski
  9. China Water Information Center, Lane 2 Baiguang Road, Beijing 100761, China

    • Chunzhen Liu
  10. Caribbean Epidemiology Center, 16–18 Jamaica Boulevard, Federation ParkPO Box 164, Port of Spain, Trinadad and Tobago

    • Samuel Rawlins
  11. 3D-Environmental Change, Curtiuslaan 14, 1851 AM, Heiloo, Netherlands

    • Anton Imeson


  1. Search for Cynthia Rosenzweig in:

  2. Search for David Karoly in:

  3. Search for Marta Vicarelli in:

  4. Search for Peter Neofotis in:

  5. Search for Qigang Wu in:

  6. Search for Gino Casassa in:

  7. Search for Annette Menzel in:

  8. Search for Terry L. Root in:

  9. Search for Nicole Estrella in:

  10. Search for Bernard Seguin in:

  11. Search for Piotr Tryjanowski in:

  12. Search for Chunzhen Liu in:

  13. Search for Samuel Rawlins in:

  14. Search for Anton Imeson in:

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Cynthia Rosenzweig.

Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary information

    The file contains Supplementary Figure S1 and Supplementary Tables S1-S5.

About this article

Publication history





Further reading


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.