Impermanence is an ecological principle1 but there are times when changes occur nonlinearly as abrupt community shifts (ACSs) that transform the ecosystem state and the goods and services it provides2. Here, we present a model based on niche theory3 to explain and predict ACSs at the global scale. We test our model using 14 multi-decadal time series of marine metazoans from zooplankton to fish, spanning all latitudes and the shelf to the open ocean. Predicted and observed fluctuations correspond, with both identifying ACSs at the end of the 1980s4,5,6,7 and 1990s5,8. We show that these ACSs coincide with changes in climate that alter local thermal regimes, which in turn interact with the thermal niche of species to trigger long-term and sometimes abrupt shifts at the community level. A large-scale ACS is predicted after 2014—unprecedented in magnitude and extent—coinciding with a strong El Niño event and major shifts in Northern Hemisphere climate. Our results underline the sensitivity of the Arctic Ocean, where unprecedented melting may reorganize biological communities5,9, and suggest an increase in the size and consequences of ACS events in a warming world.

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Data availability

The data that support the findings of this study are available from the corresponding author upon request.

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Journal peer review information Nature Climate Change thanks Adrian Stier and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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This work was supported by the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Research Programme CPER CLIMIBIO (Nord–Pas-de-Calais), regional programme INDICOP (Pas-de-Calais) and ANR project TROPHIK. The authors thank the French Ministère de l’Enseignement Supérieur et de la Recherche, Hauts-de-France Region and European Regional Development Fund for financially supporting this project. We are indebted to P. Notez for help with computer engineering. A.A. and the Antarctic dataset were supported by the World Wildlife Fund, NERC and DEFRA grant number NE/L 003279/1 (Marine Ecosystems Research Programme) and NERC National Capability grant number NE/R015953/1. P.C.R. was also funded by NERC.

Author information


  1. Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Laboratoire d’Océanologie et de Géosciences, UMR 8187 LOG, Station Marine de Wimereux, Université de Lille, Université du Littoral Côte d’Opale, Wimereux, France

    • G. Beaugrand
  2. Marine Biological Association–Continuous Plankton Recorder Survey, Citadel Hill Laboratory, Plymouth, UK

    • G. Beaugrand
    • , P. C. Reid
    •  & M. Edwards
  3. Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche, Istituto di Scienze Marine, Lerici, Italy

    • A. Conversi
  4. Plymouth Marine Laboratory, Plymouth, UK

    • A. Atkinson
  5. United States Geological Survey, Menlo Park, CA, USA

    • J. Cloern
  6. Research and Development Center for Global Change, Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology, Yokohama, Japan

    • S. Chiba
  7. Department of Life Sciences, University of Trieste, Trieste, Italy

    • S. Fonda-Umani
  8. The Secchi Disk Foundation, Plymouth, UK

    • R. R. Kirby
  9. Ocean Resources and Ecosystems Program, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, USA

    • C. H. Greene
  10. BOREA, MNHN, Sorbonne Université, Université de Caen Normandie, Université des Antilles, CNRS, IRD, CP53, Paris, France

    • E. Goberville
  11. Institute of Marine Ecosystem and Fishery Science, Center for Earth System Research and Sustainability, University of Hamburg, Hamburg, Germany

    • S. A. Otto
  12. Sorbonne Université, Institut de la Mer de Villefranche, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, UMR 7093, Laboratoire d’Océanographie de Villefranche, Villefranche-sur-Mer, France

    • L. Stemmann


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G.B. conceived the study. G.B., A.C., A.A., E.G., J.C. and S.C. compiled the data with input from all co-authors. G.B. analysed the data. G.B. wrote the initial draft or the paper. G.B., A.C., A.A., P.C.R., C.G., E.G., J.C., R.R.K., S.A.O., S.C. and M.E. discussed the results and contributed to writing the paper, with input from all co-authors.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to G. Beaugrand.

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