The study of climate change has been based strongly on data collected from instruments, but how local people perceive such changes remains poorly quantified. We conducted a meta-analysis of climatic changes observed by subsistence-oriented communities. Our review of 10,660 observations from 2,230 localities in 137 countries shows that increases in temperature and changes in seasonality and rainfall patterns are widespread (≈70% of localities across 122 countries). Observations of increased temperature show patterns consistent with simulated trends in surface air temperature taken from the ensemble average of CMIP5 models, for the period 1955–2005. Secondary impacts of climatic changes on both wild and domesticated plants and animals are extensive and threaten the food security of subsistence-oriented communities. Collectively, our results suggest that climate change is having profound disruptive effects at local levels and that local observations can make an important contribution to understanding the pervasiveness of climate change on ecosystems and societies.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution
Open Access articles citing this article.
Indigenous local observations and experiences can give useful indicators of climate change in data-deficient regions
Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences Open Access 22 February 2022
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $8.25 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
Parmesan, C. Ecological and evolutionary responses to recent climate change. Annu. Rev. Ecol. Evol. Syst. 37, 637–669 (2006).
Pinsky, M. L., Worm, B., Fogarty, M. J., Sarmiento, J. L. & Levin, S. A. Marine taxa track local climate velocities. Science 341, 1239–1242 (2013).
Pearson, R. G. & Dawson, T. P. Predicting the impacts of climate change on the distribution of species: are bioclimate envelope models useful? Global Ecol. Biogeogr. 12, 361–371 (2003).
Schiermeier, Q. The real holes in climate science. Nature 463, 284–287 (2010).
Gilman, E. L., Ellison, J., Duke, N. C. & Field, C. Threats to mangroves from climate change and adaptation options: a review. Aquat. Bot. 89, 237–250 (2008).
Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation (eds Field, C. B. et al.) (IPCC, Cambridge Univ. Press, 2012).
Mora, C. et al. The projected timing of climate departure from recent variability. Nature 502, 183–187 (2013).
Galloway McLean, K. Advance Guard: Climate Change Impacts, Adaptation, Mitigation and Indigenous Peoples — A Compendium of Case Studies (United Nations University — Traditional Knowledge Initiative, 2010). A compendium of cases studies that show the value of TEK in relation to research on climate change.
Adger, W. N., Barnett, J., Brown, K., Marshall, N. & O'Brien, K. Cultural dimensions of climate change impacts and adaptation. Nature Clim. Change 3, 112–117 (2013). A study on the different ways in which climate change and culture are interrelated.
Alexander, C. et al. Linking indigenous and scientific knowledge of climate change. Bioscience 61, 477–484 (2011).
Macdonald, P., Harper, S. L., Willox, A. C. & Edge, V. L. A necessary voice: climate change and lived experiences of youth in Rigolet, Nunatsiavut, Canada. Glob. Environ. Chang. 23, 360–371 (2013).
Turner, N. J. & Berkes, F. Coming to understanding: developing conservation through incremental learning in the Pacific Northwest. Hum. Ecol. 34, 495–513 (2006).
King, D. N. T., Skipper, A. & Tawhai, W. B. Māori environmental knowledge of local weather and climate change in Aotearoa — New Zealand. Climatic Change 90, 385–409 (2008).
Nakashima, D. J., Galloway McLean, K., Thulstrup, H. D., Ramos Castillo, A. & Rubis, J. T. Weathering Uncertainty: Traditional Knowledge for Climate Change Assessment and Adaptation (United Nations University, 2012). A comprehensive analysis of implications of climate change for indigenous and marginalized communities.
Nyong, T., Adesina, F. & Elasha, B. The value of indigenous knowledge in climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies in the African Sahel. Mitig. Adapt. Strat. Glob. Change 12, 787–797 (2007).
McNeeley, S. M. & Shulski, M. D. Anatomy of a closing window: vulnerability to changing seasonality in Interior Alaska. Glob. Environ. Chang. 21, 464–473 (2011).
Prno, J. et al. Community vulnerability to climate change in the context of other exposure-sensitivities in Kugluktuk, Nunavut. Polar Res. 30, 7363 (2011).
Howe, P. D., Markowitz, E. M., Lee, T. M., Ko, C. Y. & Leiserowitz, A. Global perceptions of local temperature change. Nature Clim. Change 3, 352–356 (2013).
Lehner, F. & Stocker, T. F. From local perception to global perspective. Nature Clim. Change 5, 731–734 (2015).
Crona, B., Wutich, A., Brewis, A. & Gartin, M. Perceptions of climate change: linking local and global perceptions through a cultural knowledge approach. Climatic Change 119, 519–531 (2013). A comparative study, in six countries, of local observations of climate change.
Van Oldenborgh, G. J. et al. in Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. (eds Stocker, T. F. et al.) Annex I (IPCC, Cambridge Univ. Press, 2013).
Metzger, M. J., Bunce, R. G. H., van Eupen, M. & Mirtl, M. An assessment of long term ecosystem research activities across European socio-ecological gradients. J. Environ. Manage. 91, 1357–1365 (2010).
Gearheard, S. et al. “It's not that simple”: a collaborative comparison of sea ice environments, their uses, observed changes, and adaptations in Barrow, Alaska, USA, and Clyde River, Nunavut, Canada. AMBIO 35, 203–211 (2006).
Karl, T. R. & Trenberth, K. E. Modern global climate change. Science 302, 1719–1723 (2003).
Marin, A. Riders under storms: contributions of nomadic herders' observations to analysing climate change in Mongolia. Glob. Environ. Chang. 20, 162–176 (2010).
Sherwood, S. & Fu, Q. A drier future. Science 343, 737–739 (2014).
Bury, J. T. et al. Glacier recession and human vulnerability in the Yanamarey watershed of the Cordillera Blanca, Peru. Climatic Change 105, 179–206 (2011).
Field, C. B. et al. Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Part A: Global and Sectorial Aspects (IPCC, Cambridge Univ. Press, 2014).
Gearheard, S., Pocernich, M., Stewart, R., Sanguya, J. & Huntington, H. P. Linking Inuit knowledge and meteorological station observations to understand changing wind patterns at Clyde River, Nunavut. Climatic Change 100, 267–294 (2010).
Prather, M. et al. in Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. (eds Stocker, T. F. et al.) Annex II (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2013).
Rahmstorf, S. & Coumou, D. Increase of extreme events in a warming world. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 108, 17905–17909 (2011).
Stocker, T. F. et al. Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis (IPCC, World Meteorological Organization, 2013).
Chaudhary, P. & Bawa, K. S. Local perceptions of climate change validated by scientific evidence in the Himalayas. Biol. Lett. 7, 767–770 (2011).
Schneider, P. Current and future climate change adaptation of a vulnerable coastal community on the Coromandel Peninsula, New Zealand. MSc thesis, Univ. Massey (2010).
Roncoli, C., Ingram, K. & Kirshen, P. Reading the rains: local knowledge and rainfall forecasting in Burkina Faso. Soc. Nat. Resour. 15, 409–427 (2002).
Cunningham, S. J., Martin, R. O., Hojem, C. L. & Hockey, P. A. Temperatures in excess of critical thresholds threaten nestling growth and survival in a rapidly-warming arid savanna: a study of common fiscals. PLOS ONE 8, e74613 (2013).
Thomson, M. C., Connor, S. J., Ward, N. & Molyneux, D. Impact of climate variability on infectious disease in West Africa. EcoHealth 1, 138–150 (2004).
Weiss, R. A. & McMichael, A. J. Social and environmental risk factors in the emergence of infectious diseases. Nature Medicine 10, S70–S76 (2004).
Greve, P. et al. Global assessment of trends in wetting and drying over land. Nature Geosci. 7, 716–721 (2014).
Gudmundsson, L., Rego, F. C. & Seneviratne, S. I. Predicting above normal wildfire activity in southern Europe as a function of meteorological drought. Environ. Res. Lett. 9, 084008 (2014).
Sillmann, J. & Roeckner, E. Indices for extreme events in projections of anthropogenic climate change. Climatic Change 86, 83–104 (2008).
Thomas, D. S., Twyman, C., Osbahr, H. & Hewitson, B. Adaptation to climate change and variability: farmer responses to intra-seasonal precipitation trends in South Africa. Climatic Change 83, 301–322 (2007).
Devkota, R. P., Bajracharya, B. & Narayan, T. The perception of Nepal's Tharu community in regard to climate change and its impacts on their livelihoods. Int. J. Environ. Stud. 68, 937–946 (2011).
Hartmann, I. et al. The Impact of Climate Change on Pastoral Societies of Somaliland (Candlelight for Health, 2009).
Majule, A. E., Kauzeni, A. S., Shishira, E. K., Mwansasu, S. & Gwambene, B. in Strengthening Local Agricultural Innovations to Adapt to Climate Change in Botswana, Malawi, South Africa and Tanzania (eds Maro, P. S. & Majule, A. E.) 208–223 (Univ. Dar es Salaam, 2009).
Kuruppu, N. & Liverman, D. Mental preparation for climate adaptation: the role of cognition and culture in enhancing adaptive capacity of water management in Kiribati. Glob. Environ. Chang. 21, 657–669 (2011).
Nicholson, S. E. Climatic and environmental change in Africa during the last two centuries. Clim. Res. 17, 123–144 (2001).
Nielsen, J. Ø. & Reenberg, A. Temporality and the problem with singling out climate as a current driver of change in a small West African village. J. Arid Environ. 74, 464–474 (2010).
Nielsen, J. Ø. & Vigh, H. Adaptive lives: navigating the global food crisis in a changing climate. Glob. Environ. Chang. 22, 659–669 (2012).
Abiodun, B. J., Salami, A. T., Matthew, O. J. & Odedokun, S. Potential impacts of afforestation on climate change and extreme events in Nigeria. Clim. Dynam. 41, 277–293 (2013).
Young, I. R., Zieger, S. & Babanin, A. V. Global trends in wind speed and wave height. Science 332, 451–455 (2011).
Sowers, J., Vengosh, A. & Weinthal, E. Climate change, water resources, and the politics of adaptation in the Middle East and North Africa. Climatic Change 104, 599–627 (2011).
Vörösmarty, C. J., Green, P., Salisbury, J. & Lammers, R. B. Global water resources: vulnerability from climate change and population growth. Science 289, 284–288 (2000).
Speranza, C. I., Kiteme, B., Ambenje, P., Wiesmann, U. & Makali, S. Indigenous knowledge related to climate variability and change: insights from droughts in semi-arid areas of former Makueni District, Kenya. Climatic Change 100, 295–315 (2010).
Hofmeijer, I. et al. Community vulnerability to the health effects of climate change among indigenous populations in the Peruvian Amazon: a case study from Panaillo and Nuevo Progreso. Mitig. Adapt. Strategies Glob. Chang. 18, 957–978 (2013).
van der Valk, M. R. & Keenan, P. Climate Change, Water Stress, Conflict and Migration (UNESCO, 2012).
Padi, P. T., Di Baldassarre, G. & Castellarin, A. Floodplain management in Africa: large scale analysis of flood data. Phys. Chem. Earth 36, 292–298 (2011).
Nuorteva, P., Keskinen, M. & Varis, O. Water, livelihoods and climate change adaptation in the Tonle Sap Lake area, Cambodia: learning from the past to understand the future. J. Water Clim. Chang. 1, 87–101 (2010).
Becken, S., Lama, A. K. & Espiner, S. The cultural context of climate change impacts: perceptions among community members in the Annapurna Conservation Area, Nepal. Environ. Dev. 8, 22–37 (2013).
Petley, D. N. et al. Trends in landslide occurrence in Nepal. Natural Hazards 43, 23–44 (2007).
Diessner, C. It Will Rain if God Wills it: Local Perceptions of Climate Change in the Futa Tooro of Northern Senegal MA thesis, Univ. Missouri (2012).
O'Neill, C., Green, D. & Lui, W. How to make climate change research relevant for Indigenous communities in Torres Strait, Australia. Local Environ. 17, 1104–1120 (2012).
Knox, J., Hess, T., Daccache, A. & Wheeler, T. Climate change impacts on crop productivity in Africa and South Asia. Environ. Res. Lett. 7, 034032 (2012).
Gregory, P. J., Johnson, S. N., Newton, A. C. & Ingram J. S. I. Integrating pests and pathogens into the climate change/food security debate. J. Exp. Bot. 60, 2827–2838 (2009).
Lama, S. & Devkota, B. Vulnerability of mountain communities to climate change and adaptation strategies. J. Agric. Environ. 10, 76–83 (2009).
Wang, L. The Vulnerability of Social-Environmental Systems and Farmers' Livelihood to Climate Change on China's Loess Plateau PhD thesis, Univ. New South Wales (2012).
Kirrane, C., Sharkey, C. & Naess, L. O. Shaping Strategies: Factors and Actors in Climate Change Adaptation. Lessons from Two-Year Case Studies in Africa and Latin America (Trocaire, 2012).
Reedy, D., Savo, V. & McClatchey, W. Traditional climatic knowledge: orchardists' perceptions of and adaptation to climate change in the Campania region (Southern Italy). Plant Biosyst. 148, 699–712 (2014).
Lescureux, N. et al. The king of the forest: local knowledge about European brown bears (Ursus arctos) and implications for their conservation in contemporary Western Macedonia. Conserv. Soc. 9, 189–201 (2011).
Lavrillier, A. Climate change among nomadic and settled Tungus of Siberia: continuity and changes in economic and ritual relationships with the natural environment. Polar Rec. 49, 260–271 (2013).
Keskitalo, E. C. H. & Kulyasova, A. A. The role of governance in community adaptation to climate change. Polar Res. 28, 60–70 (2009).
Carter, B. T. & Nielsen, E. A. Exploring ecological changes in Cook Inlet Beluga Whale habitat though traditional and local ecological knowledge of contributing factors for population decline. Marine Policy 35, 299–308 (2011).
Menzel, A. et al. European phenological response to climate change matches the warming pattern. Glob. Change Biol. 12, 1969–1976 (2006).
Cleland, E. E., Chuine, I., Menzel, A., Mooney, H. A. & Schwartz, M. D. Shifting plant phenology in response to global change. Trends Ecol. Evol. 22, 357–365 (2007).
Butchart, S. H. et al. Global biodiversity: indicators of recent declines. Science 328, 1164–1168 (2010).
Ashwill, M., Flora, C. & Flora, J. Building Community Resilience to Climate Change: Testing the Adaptation Coalition Framework in Latin America (World Bank, 2011).
Colwell, R. K., Brehm, G., Cardelús, C. L., Gilman, A. C. & Longino, J. T. Global warming, elevational range shifts, and lowland biotic attrition in the wet tropics. Science 322, 258–261 (2008).
Nicholls, R. J. & Cazenave, A. Sea-level rise and its impact on coastal zones. Science 328, 1517–1520 (2010).
Meier, W. N., Stroeve, J. & Gearheard, S. Bridging perspectives from remote sensing and Inuit communities on changing sea-ice cover in the Baffin Bay region. Ann. Glaciol. 44, 433–438 (2006).
Danielsen, F. et al. Testing focus groups as a tool for connecting indigenous and local knowledge on abundance of natural resources with science-based land management systems. Conserv. Lett. 7, 380–389 (2014).
Weatherhead, E., Gearheard, S. & Barry, R. G. Changes in weather persistence: insight from Inuit knowledge. Glob. Environ. Chang. 20, 523–528 (2010).
Buijs, C. Inuit perceptions of climate change in East Greenland. Études/Inuit/Studies 34, 39–54 (2010).
Savo, V., Caneva, G., McClatchey, W., Reedy, D. & Salvati, L. Combining environmental factors and agriculturalists' observations of environmental changes in the traditional terrace system of the Amalfi Coast (Southern Italy). AMBIO 43, 297–310 (2014).
Meze-Hausken, E. Contrasting climate variability and meteorological drought with perceived drought and climate change in northern Ethiopia. Clim. Res. 27, 19–31 (2004).
Hayati, D., Yazdanpanah, M. & Karbalaee, F. Coping with drought: the case of poor farmers of South Iran. Psychol. Dev. Soc. 22, 361–383 (2010).
Furberg, M., Evengård, B. & Nilsson, M. Facing the limit of resilience: perceptions of climate change among reindeer herding Sami in Sweden. Global Health Act. 4, 8417 (2011).
Von Platen-Hallermund, T. & Thorsen, A. M. Vulnerability and Climate Change Adaptation in Rural Vietnam MSc thesis, Univ. Roskilde (2010).
Chowdhury, S. R., Hossain, M. S., Shamsuddoha, M. & Khan, S. M. M. H. Coastal fishers' livelihood in peril: sea surface temperature and tropical cyclones in Bangladesh (CPRD, 2012).
Cook, J. et al. Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature. Environ. Res. Lett. 8, 024024 (2013).
Palen, W. J. et al. Energy: consider the global impacts of oil pipelines. Nature 510, 465 (2014).
Crate, S. A. Gone the bull of winter? Grappling with the cultural implications of and anthropology's role(s) in global climate change. Curr. Anthropol. 49, 569–595 (2008).
Crate, S. A. in Water, Cultural Diversity, and Global Environmental Change. Emerging Trends, Sustainable Futures? (eds Johnston, B. R., Hiwasaki, L., Klaver, I. J., Castillo, A. R. & Strang, V.) 214–217 (Springer, 2012).
Papiez, C. Climate Change Implications for the Quileute and Hoh Tribes of Washington: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Assessing Climatic Disruptions to Coastal Indigenous Communities PhD thesis, Evergreen State College (2009).
Singh, R. K., Bhowmik, S. N. & Pandey, C. B. Biocultural diversity, climate change and livelihood security of the Adi community: grassroots conservators of Eastern Himalaya Arunachal Pradesh. Indian J. Tradit. Knowl. 10, 39–56 (2011).
Doyle, J. T., Redsteer, M. H. & Eggers, M. J. Exploring Effects of Climate Change on Northern Plains American Indian Health. Climatic Change 120, 643–655 (2013).
Garcia, D. T. The Interrelationship of Local and Global Events and the Changing Ecological and Socio-Economic States of the Sierra Tarahumara in Chihuahua, Mexico BSc thesis, Univ. Arizona (2009).
Shimola, K. & Krishnaveni, M. in On a Sustainable Future of the Earth's Natural Resources (ed. Ramkumar, M.) 509–516 (Springer, 2013).
Phuong, L. T. H. Climate Change and Farmers' Adaptation: A Case Study of Mixed-Farming Systems in the Coastal Area in Trieu Van Commune, Trieu Phong District, Quang Tri Province, Vietnam MSc thesis, HUAF (2011).
Zaheer, K. Community Vulnerability Assessment: Kharo Chan, Keti Bunder and Jiwani (World Wide Fund for Nature, 2012).
This research was undertaken with the assistance of the Government of Canada/avec l'appui du gouvernement du Canada and the generous support of the Tula Foundation (Heriot Bay, British Columbia, Canada) through the Hakai Institute (Campbell River, British Columbia, Canada). Many thanks are also due to the Forest Ecology and Management Group at Simon Fraser University (Canada), the Hakai scholars (Hakai Institute), Dongya Yang (Simon Fraser University), Kevin M. Sampson (National Center for Atmospheric Research), Corinne Le Quéré (Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, University of East Anglia), Geert Jan van Oldenborgh (Koninklijk Nederlands Meteorologisch Instituut) and Trisalyn Nelson (University of Victoria) for their suggestions and comments.
The authors declare no competing financial interests.
About this article
Cite this article
Savo, V., Lepofsky, D., Benner, J. et al. Observations of climate change among subsistence-oriented communities around the world. Nature Clim Change 6, 462–473 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2958
This article is cited by
Climate change affects us in the tropics: local perspectives on ecosystem services and well-being sensitivity in Southeast Brazil
Regional Environmental Change (2022)
Environment, Development and Sustainability (2022)
Understanding top-down and bottom-up processes in an ungulate community to define conservation priorities in a desert environment
Biodiversity and Conservation (2022)
Assessment of Biofortification Approaches Used to Improve Micronutrient-Dense Plants That Are a Sustainable Solution to Combat Hidden Hunger
Journal of Soil Science and Plant Nutrition (2022)
Indigenous local observations and experiences can give useful indicators of climate change in data-deficient regions
Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences (2022)