Extinction risk from climate change is reduced by microclimatic buffering


Protecting biodiversity against the impacts of climate change requires effective conservation strategies that safeguard species at risk of extinction1. Microrefugia allowed populations to survive adverse climatic conditions in the past2,3, but their potential to reduce extinction risk from anthropogenic warming is poorly understood3,4,5, hindering our capacity to develop robust in situ measures to adapt conservation to climate change6. Here, we show that microclimatic heterogeneity has strongly buffered species against regional extirpations linked to recent climate change. Using more than five million distribution records for 430 climate-threatened and range-declining species, population losses across England are found to be reduced in areas where topography generated greater variation in the microclimate. The buffering effect of topographic microclimates was strongest for those species adversely affected by warming and in areas that experienced the highest levels of warming: in such conditions, extirpation risk was reduced by 22% for plants and by 9% for insects. Our results indicate the critical role of topographic variation in creating microrefugia, and provide empirical evidence that microclimatic heterogeneity can substantially reduce extinction risk from climate change.

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Fig. 1: Classification of plants and insects by responses to warming and microclimatic heterogeneity.
Fig. 2: Modelled change in extirpation risk for each species as a function of warming and microclimatic heterogeneity.


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We thank the many people, predominantly volunteers, who submitted data to the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland, British Bryological Society, Butterfly Conservation, Ground Beetle Recording Scheme, Soldier Beetle Recording Scheme, Longhorn Beetle Recording Scheme and UK Ladybird Survey, as well as the coordinators of those schemes. Thanks also to the UK Met Office, Natural England, Environment Agency, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Defra and NASA for data access. I. Stott, R. Inger, A. P. Durán and K. Gaston provided comments on drafts of the manuscript. The work was funded by Natural England and by NERC grant NE/L00268X/1 to R.J.W. and I.M.D.M.

Author information

A.J.S. conducted the analyses. I.M.D.M., N.J.B.I., N.A.M., M.D.M., S.D., H.Q.P.C. and R.J.W. conceived the work and supervised analyses. A.J.S., I.M.D.M. and R.J.W. wrote the manuscript with contributions from the whole team. C.M.B., A.G.A., T.A., J.J.B., J.J.H., R.F. and K.J.W. provided data and expert guidance.

Correspondence to Andrew J. Suggitt or Robert J. Wilson or Ilya M. D. Maclean.

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Supplementary Information

Supplementary Figures 1–6, Supplementary Table 2

Supplementary Table 1

Model outputs and performance measures by species

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Suggitt, A.J., Wilson, R.J., Isaac, N.J.B. et al. Extinction risk from climate change is reduced by microclimatic buffering. Nature Clim Change 8, 713–717 (2018) doi:10.1038/s41558-018-0231-9

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