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The velocity of climate change


The ranges of plants and animals are moving in response to recent changes in climate1. As temperatures rise, ecosystems with ‘nowhere to go’, such as mountains, are considered to be more threatened2,3. However, species survival may depend as much on keeping pace with moving climates as the climate’s ultimate persistence4,5. Here we present a new index of the velocity of temperature change (km yr-1), derived from spatial gradients (°C km-1) and multimodel ensemble forecasts of rates of temperature increase (°C yr-1) in the twenty-first century. This index represents the instantaneous local velocity along Earth’s surface needed to maintain constant temperatures, and has a global mean of 0.42 km yr-1 (A1B emission scenario). Owing to topographic effects, the velocity of temperature change is lowest in mountainous biomes such as tropical and subtropical coniferous forests (0.08 km yr-1), temperate coniferous forest, and montane grasslands. Velocities are highest in flooded grasslands (1.26 km yr-1), mangroves and deserts. High velocities suggest that the climates of only 8% of global protected areas have residence times exceeding 100 years. Small protected areas exacerbate the problem in Mediterranean-type and temperate coniferous forest biomes. Large protected areas may mitigate the problem in desert biomes. These results indicate management strategies for minimizing biodiversity loss from climate change. Montane landscapes may effectively shelter many species into the next century. Elsewhere, reduced emissions, a much expanded network of protected areas6, or efforts to increase species movement may be necessary7.

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Figure 1: Changing temperature in California.
Figure 2: The velocity of temperature change globally.
Figure 3: The velocity of temperature change by biome.
Figure 4: Climate residence time (yr) in protected areas.


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This work was made possible through the support of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the Stanford University Global Climate and Energy Project.

Author Contributions D.D.A. conceived the study. S.R.L., D.D.A., P.B.D., H.H. and C.B.F. designed the study. S.R.L., P.B.D. and G.P.A. performed the analysis. S.R.L., D.D.A., P.B.D., C.B.F., H.H. and G.P.A. wrote the paper.

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Correspondence to Scott R. Loarie.

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Loarie, S., Duffy, P., Hamilton, H. et al. The velocity of climate change. Nature 462, 1052–1055 (2009).

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