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.

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This work was conducted as a part of the Understanding Marine Biological Impacts of Climate Change Working Group supported by the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, a centre funded by NSF (Grant #EF-0553768), the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the State of California.

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Author notes

    • Christopher J. Brown

    Present Address: Global Change Institute, The University of Queensland, St Lucia, Queensland 4072, Australia


  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


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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.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Elvira S. Poloczanska or Christopher J. Brown.

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