Persistent Quaternary climate refugia are hospices for biodiversity in the Anthropocene


Climate stability leads to high levels of speciation and reduced extinction rates, shaping species richness patterns1,2,3. Hotspots of species diversity often overlap with regions that experienced stable temperatures and, perhaps, variable rates of precipitation during the late Quaternary4,5. These hotspots potentially harbour many species with low vagility and small geographical ranges6, making them more vulnerable to future ecoclimatic change4,7,8. By comparing global and regional patterns of climate stability during short periods of unusually large and widespread climate changes since the Last Glacial Maximum with twenty-first-century patterns, we show that human-driven climate change will disproportionally affect biodiversity in late Quaternary climate refugia, ultimately affecting the species, communities and ecosystems that are most vulnerable to climate change. Moreover, future changes in absolute temperature will probably erode the mechanisms that are theorized to sustain biodiversity hotspots across time. These impending shifts from stable to unstable temperatures—projected for the majority of the world’s biodiversity regions—threaten to reduce the size and extent of important climatic safe havens for diversity. Where climate refugia are forecast to persist until the end of this century, temperatures in these refuges are likely to exceed the acclimation capacity of many species, making them short-term hospices for biodiversity at best7,8,9.

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Fig. 1: Classified median trend and variability during periods of rapid change in global mean temperature.
Fig. 2: Areas of overlap in stable surface temperature (≤25th percentile) and unstable precipitation (≥75th percentile) conditions over land.
Fig. 3: The relationship between contemporary species richness and past temperature trend and precipitation variability.
Fig. 4: A comparison of past and future signal-to-noise ratios.
Fig. 5: The regional changes in SNR for Wallace zoogeographic regions.

Data availability

The source data used for the analysis of preindustrial control and future RCP scenarios are available through the Earth System Grid Federation data portals (for example, with scripts to download the data available at Data used for the analysis of climates from the LGM to preindustrialization are available through the PaleoView software ( Data used to recreate the figures is available from the corresponding authors on request.

Code availability

The code used to generate the outputs (trends, variability, SNR) is available from the corresponding authors on request.


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This research was funded by an Australian Research Council Future Fellowships awarded to D.A.F. (grant no. FT140101192) and a Discovery Grant (grant no. DP130103261) awarded to T.M.L.W.

Author information

D.A.F conceived and led the project. S.C.B and T.M.L.W. did the analysis. B.L.O.-B. and C.R. guided the analysis of climate and macroecological datasets. S.C.B drafted the manuscript and all authors commented on the paper.

Correspondence to Stuart C. Brown or Damien A. Fordham.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Peer review information Nature Climate Change thanks Glenn Yannic and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 Classified median trend and variability during periods of rapid change in global mean temperature.

Panels show the past (a, b) and the future for RCP 4.5 (c, d) for surface temperature (a, c) and precipitation (b, d). The six classes map median trend and variability (s.d. of residuals from the trend) calculated separately for land and ocean: ≤ 25th (P25); > 25th and ≤ 50th (Low–Low); ≤ 50th for trend and ≥ 50th for variability (Low–High); > 50th for trend and ≤ 50th for variability (High–Low); > 50th and ≤ 75th (High–High); > 75th (P75). The hatched overlays in c and d show climatic conditions that are considered as either stable (≤ P25, surface temperature) or unstable (≥ P75, precipitation) at a global scale in both the past and future.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Areas of overlap in stable surface temperature (≤ 25th percentile) and unstable precipitation (≥ 75th percentile) conditions over land.

Panels show the past (a), and the future under RCP 4.5 (b). Areas of overlap - regions where climate conditions are hypothesized to drive higher contemporary species richness – are shown in blue. Areas in orange in b, show differences between the past and the future (i.e., areas of overlap that are lost). The transparent green regions overlaid on the maps are biodiversity hotspots19.

Extended Data Fig. 3 Comparison of past and future signal-to-noise ratios.

Grid cell differences (ΔSNR) in signal-to-noise ratio (SNR = trend/variability) for centuries of rapid change in global-mean temperature since 21,000 BP and for RCP 4.5 calculated for air temperature (a) and precipitation (b).

Extended Data Fig. 4 Regional changes in SNR for Wallace Zoogeographic regions.

Map of percent overlap between empirical kernel density estimates (KDE) for temperature SNR (a) and precipitation SNR (b) calculated during past rapid shifts in global-mean temperature and under an RCP 4.5 scenario.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary methods, Figs. 1–9, Tables 1–5 and refs. 1–49.

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Brown, S.C., Wigley, T.M.L., Otto-Bliesner, B.L. et al. Persistent Quaternary climate refugia are hospices for biodiversity in the Anthropocene. Nat. Clim. Chang. (2020).

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