Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Ocean warming compresses the three-dimensional habitat of marine life


Vertical migration to reach cooler waters is a suitable strategy for some marine organisms to adapt to ocean warming. Here, we calculate that realized vertical isotherm migration rates averaged −6.6 + 18.8 m dec−1 across the global ocean between 1980 and 2015. Throughout this century (2006–2100), surface isotherms are projected to deepen at an increasing rate across the globe, averaging −32.3 m dec−1 under the representative concentration pathway (RCP)8.5 ‘business as usual’ emissions scenario, and −18.7 m dec−1 under the more moderate RCP4.5 scenario. The vertical redistribution required by organisms to follow surface isotherms over this century is three to four orders of magnitude less than the equivalent horizontal redistribution distance. However, the seafloor depth and the depth of the photic layer pose ultimate limits to the vertical migration possible by species. Both limits will be reached by the end of this century across much of the ocean, leading to a rapid global compression of the three-dimensional (3D) habitat of many marine organisms. Phytoplankton diversity may be maintained but displaced toward the base of the photic layer, whereas highly productive benthic habitats, especially corals, will have their suitable 3D habitat rapidly reduced.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Fig. 1: Description of isotherm migration.
Fig. 2: Changes in potential phytoplankton diversity under the RCP8.5 emissions scenario.
Fig. 3: Changes in the suitable habitats for benthic organisms.

Data availability

All data are available in the main text or the supplementary materials.


  1. 1.

    Burrows, M. T. et al. The pace of shifting climate in marine and terrestrial ecosystems. Science 334, 652–655 (2011).

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  2. 2.

    Burrows, M. T. et al. Geographical limits to species-range shifts are suggested by climate velocity. Nature 507, 492–495 (2014).

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  3. 3.

    Pörtner, H. O. et al. in Climate Change 2014 Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability (eds Field, C. B. et al.) 411–484 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2014).

  4. 4.

    Poloczanska, E. S. et al. Global imprint of climate change on marine life. Nat. Clim. Change 3, 919–925 (2013).

    Google Scholar 

  5. 5.

    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).

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  6. 6.

    Gaston, K. J. Global patterns in biodiversity. Nature 405, 220–227 (2000).

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  7. 7.

    Brokovich, E., Einbinder, S., Shashar, N., Kiflawi, M. & Kark, S. Descending to the twilight-zone: changes in coral reef fish assemblages along a depth gradient down to 65 m. Mar. Ecol. Prog. Ser. 371, 253–262 (2008).

    Google Scholar 

  8. 8.

    Rhein, M. et al. in Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis (eds Stocker, T. F. et al.) 255–316 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2013).

  9. 9.

    Dulvy, N. K. et al. Climate Change and deepening of the North Sea fish assemblage: a biotic indicator of warming seas. J. Appl. Ecol. 45, 1029–1039 (2008).

    Google Scholar 

  10. 10.

    Parmesan, C. & Yohe, G. A globally coherent fingerprint of climate change impacts across natural systems. Nature 421, 37–42 (2003).

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  11. 11.

    Brown, A. & Thatje, S. The effects of changing climate on faunal depth distributions determine winners and losers. Glob. Change Biol. 21, 173–180 (2015).

    Google Scholar 

  12. 12.

    Balmaseda, M. A., Mogensen, K. & Weaver, A. T. Evaluation of the ECMWF ocean reanalysis system ORAS4. Q. J. R. Meteorol. Soc. 139, 1132–1161 (2013).

    Google Scholar 

  13. 13.

    Taylor, K. E. et al. An overview of CMIP5 and the experiment design. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 93, 485–498 (2012).

    Google Scholar 

  14. 14.

    Thomas, M. K., Kremer, C. T., Klausmeier, C. A. & Litchman, E. A global pattern of thermal adaptation in marine phytoplankton. Science 338, 1085–1088 (2012).

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  15. 15.

    Jordà, G., Marbà, N. & Duarte, C. M. Mediterranean seagrass vulnerable to regional climate warming. Nat. Clim. Change 2, 821–824 (2012).

    Google Scholar 

  16. 16.

    Garciá Molinos, J. et al. Climate velocity and the future global redistribution of marine biodiversity. Nat. Clim. Change 6, 83–88 (2016).

    Google Scholar 

  17. 17.

    Bennett, S. et al. Canopy interactions and physical stress gradients in subtidal communities. Ecol. Lett. 18, 677–686 (2015).

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  18. 18.

    Agusti, S., Lubián, L. M., Moreno-Ostos, E., Estrada, M. & Duarte, C. M. Projected changes in photosynthetic picoplankton in a warmer subtropical ocean. Front. Mar. Sci. (2019).

  19. 19.

    Wernberg, T. et al. Climate-driven regime shift of a temperate marine ecosystem. Science 353, 169–172 (2016).

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  20. 20.

    Hoegh-Guldberg, O. Climate change, coral bleaching and the future of the world’s coral reefs. Mar. Freshw. Res. 50, 839 (1999).

    Google Scholar 

  21. 21.

    Hughes, T. P. et al. Spatial and temporal patterns of mass bleaching of corals in the Anthropocene. Science 359, 80–83 (2018).

    CAS  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  22. 22.

    Filbee-Dexter, K., Feehan, C. & Scheibling, R. Large-scale degradation of a kelp ecosystem in an ocean warming hotspot. Mar. Ecol. Prog. Ser. 543, 141–152 (2016).

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  23. 23.

    Marbà, N. & Duarte, C. M. Mediterranean warming triggers seagrass (Posidonia oceanica) shoot mortality. Glob. Change Biol. 16, 2366–2375 (2010).

    Google Scholar 

  24. 24.

    Arias-Ortiz, A. et al. A marine heatwave drives massive losses from the world’s largest seagrass carbon stocks. Nat. Clim. Change 8, 338–344 (2018).

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  25. 25.

    Krause-Jensen, D. & Duarte, C. M. Substantial role of macroalgae in marine carbon sequestration. Nat. Geosci. 9, 737–742 (2016).

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  26. 26.

    Muir, P. R., Wallace, C. C., Done, T. & Aguirre, J. D. Coral reefs. Limited scope for latitudinal extension of reef corals. Science 348, 1135–1138 (2015).

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  27. 27.

    Moore, K. A. & Jarvis, J. C. Eelgrass diebacks in the lower chesapeake bay: implications for long-term persistence. J. Coast. Res. 55, 135–147 (2008).

    Google Scholar 

  28. 28.

    Carlson, D. F. et al. Sea surface temperatures and seagrass mortality in Florida Bay: spatial and temporal patterns discerned from MODIS and AVHRR data. Remote Sens. Environ. 208, 171–188 (2018).

    Google Scholar 

  29. 29.

    Thomson, J. A. et al. Extreme temperatures, foundation species, and abrupt ecosystem change: an example from an iconic seagrass ecosystem. Glob. Change Biol. 21, 1463–1474 (2015).

    Google Scholar 

  30. 30.

    Garrabou, J. et al. Mass mortality in northwestern Mediterranean rocky benthic communities: effects of the 2003 heat wave. Glob. Change Biol. 15, 1090–1103 (2009).

    Google Scholar 

  31. 31.

    Marzinelli, E. M. et al. Large-scale geographic variation in distribution and abundance of australian deep-water kelp forests. PLoS ONE 10, e0118390 (2015).

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  32. 32.

    Hughes, T. P. et al. Global warming and recurrent mass bleaching of corals. Nature 543, 373–377 (2017).

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  33. 33.

    Lough, J. M., Anderson, K. D. & Hughes, T. P. Increasing thermal stress for tropical coral reefs: 1871–2017. Sci. Rep. 8, 6079 (2018).

    CAS  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  34. 34.

    Frade, P. R. et al. Deep reefs of the Great Barrier Reef offer limited thermal refuge during mass coral bleaching. Nat. Commun. 9, 3447 (2018).

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  35. 35.

    Yamano, H., Sugihara, K. & Nomura, K. Rapid poleward range expansion of tropical reef corals in response to rising sea surface temperatures. Geophys. Res. Lett. 38, L04601 (2011).

    Google Scholar 

  36. 36.

    Takao, S. et al. An improved estimation of the poleward expansion of coral habitats based on the inter-annual variation of sea surface temperatures. Coral Reefs 34, 1125–1137 (2015).

    Google Scholar 

  37. 37.

    Baird, A. H., Sommer, B. & Madin, J. S. Pole-ward range expansion of Acropora spp. along the east coast of Australia. Coral Reefs 31, 1063–1063 (2012).

    Google Scholar 

  38. 38.

    Tuckett, C. A., de Bettignies, T., Fromont, J. & Wernberg, T. Expansion of corals on temperate reefs: direct and indirect effects of marine heatwaves. Coral Reefs 36, 947–956 (2017).

    Google Scholar 

  39. 39.

    Visser, M. E. Keeping up with a warming world; assessing the rate of adaptation to climate change. Proc. R. Soc. B 275, 649–659 (2008).

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  40. 40.

    Bennett, S., Duarte, C. M., Marbà, N. & Wernberg, T. Integrating within-species variation in thermal physiology into climate change ecology. Philos. Trans. R. Soc. B 374, 20180550 (2019).

    Google Scholar 

  41. 41.

    Irwin, A. J., Finkel, Z. V., Müller-Karger, F. E. & Troccoli Ghinaglia, L. Phytoplankton adapt to changing ocean environments. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 112, 5762–5766 (2015).

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  42. 42.

    Padfield, D., Yvon-Durocher, G., Buckling, A., Jennings, S. & Yvon-Durocher, G. Rapid evolution of metabolic traits explains thermal adaptation in phytoplankton. Ecol. Lett. 19, 133–142 (2016).

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  43. 43.

    Jin, P. & Agustí, S. Fast adaptation of tropical diatoms to increased warming with trade-offs. Sci. Rep. 8, 17771 (2018).

    CAS  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  44. 44.

    Matz, M. V., Treml, E. A., Aglyamova, G. V. & Bay, L. K. Potential and limits for rapid genetic adaptation to warming in a Great Barrier Reef coral. PLoS Genet. 14, e1007220 (2018).

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  45. 45.

    Bellwood, D. R. & Hughes, T. P. Regional-scale assembly rules and biodiversity of coral reefs. Science 292, 1532–1535 (2001).

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  46. 46.

    Stuart-Smith, R. D., Edgar, G. J., Barrett, N. S., Kininmonth, S. J. & Bates, A. E. Thermal biases and vulnerability to warming in the world’s marine fauna. Nature 528, 88–92 (2015).

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  47. 47.

    Vergés, A. et al. The tropicalization of temperate marine ecosystems: climate-mediated changes in herbivory and community phase shifts. Proc. Biol. Sci. 281, 20140846 (2014).

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  48. 48.

    Hobday, A. J. & Lough, J. M. Projected climate change in Australian marine and freshwater environments. Mar. Freshw. Res. 62, 1000 (2011).

    Google Scholar 

  49. 49.

    Stramma, L. et al. Expansion of oxygen minimum zones may reduce available habitat for tropical pelagic fishes. Nat. Clim. Change 2, 33–37 (2012).

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  50. 50.

    Collins, M. et al. in Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis (eds. Stocker, T. F. et al.) 1029–1136 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2013).

  51. 51.

    Simoncelli, S. et al. Mediterranean Sea Physical Reanalysis (MEDREA 1987–2015) Version 1 (Copernicus Marine Environment Monitoring Service, 2014);

  52. 52.

    Ruti, P. M. et al. Med-CORDEX initiative for mediterranean climate studies. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 97, 1187–1208 (2016).

    Google Scholar 

  53. 53.

    Gattuso, J.-P. et al. Light availability in the coastal ocean: Impact on the distribution of benthic photosynthetic organisms and their contribution to primary production. Biogeosciences 3, 489–513 (2006).

    Google Scholar 

  54. 54.

    Dutkiewicz, S. et al. Ocean colour signature of climate change. Nat. Commun. 10, 578 (2019).

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

Download references


We thank the World Climate Research Programme for producing and making available the CMIP5 model output. This research has been partially funded by Spanish Projects CLIFISH (grant no. CTM2015-66400-C3-2-R), MedSHIFT (grant no. CGL2015-71809-P), Fundación BBVA (Interbioclima project), European Union’s Horizon 2020 SOCLIMPACT project (grant agreement no. 776661) and King Abdullah University of Science and Technology through baseline funding to C.M.D and S.A. S.B. received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement no. 65924). J.S.G. was supported by a Juan de la Cierva Formación contract from the Spanish Ministry of Economy, Industry and Competiveness.

Author information




G.J., C.M.D., N.M., S.B. and S.A. conceived of the study. S.A., N.M., S.B. and J.S.-G. collected the data. G.J. was responsible for computation and formal analysis. C.M.D., G.J., N.M., S.A., S.B. and J.S.-G. wrote and reviewed the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Gabriel Jorda.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

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

Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 Description of isotherm migration under a moderate scenario.

a, Projected VIM (m/dec) for the 21stcentury under the RCP4.5 scenario. b, Time estimated for the present sea surface temperature to reach the base of the photic layer across the ocean (in years).

Extended Data Fig. 2 Ensemble average of the contributors to VIM.

a, Sea surface temperature change under the RCP8.5 scenario (in ºC/100 yr). b, Projection of the inverse of the temperature gradient (in m/ºC) for 2100 under the RCP8.5 scenario.

Extended Data Fig. 3 Depth of key isotherms.

The depth (in m) at which the 20°C (top), 25°C (middle) and 30°C (bottom) isotherms are found in the present climate (left column) and in the projected future climate by 2100 under scenario RCP8.5 (middle column) and scenario RCP4.5 (right column). The summer temperature is used.

Extended Data Fig. 4 Horizontal Isotherm Migration rates.

Averaged over all the GCMs under (a) the RCP8.5 scenario and (b) the RCP4.5 scenario.

Extended Data Fig. 5 Potential Phytoplankton diversity.

a, Number of phytoplankton species for which the present annual averaged Sea Surface Temperature fits into their thermal range. b, Number of phytoplankton species for which a temperature in the photic layer fits into their thermal range. c, Averaged depth for the potential phytoplankton community under present climate conditions.

Extended Data Fig. 6 Changes in potential phytoplankton diversity under a moderate scenario (RCP4.5).

a, Percent change in potential diversity between historical and projected future temperature regimes considering 3-D habitats. b, Change in the mean depth (in meters) of potential phytoplankton communities between present (1980-2005) and end of the 21st century (2075-2100).

Extended Data Fig. 7 Vulnerability of benthic organisms under a business as usual scenario.

Several diagnostics for Corals (Left column), Kelps (Middle column) and Seagrasses (Right column) under the RCP8.5 scenario: Zoom on the vertical isotherm migration rates (Top row); Time required to reach the upper thermal limit in the current suitable habitats (Middle row); Histogram of those values (Bottom row).

Extended Data Fig. 8 Vulnerability of benthic organisms under a moderate scenario.

Several diagnostics for Corals (Left column), Kelps (Middle column) and Seagrasses (Right column) under the RCP4.5 scenario: Zoom on the vertical isotherm migration rates (Top row); Time required to reach the upper thermal limit in the current suitable habitats (Middle row); Histogram of those values (Bottom row).

Extended Data Fig. 9 Changes in the suitable habitats for benthic organisms in key regions.

Light colors show the projected change of present suitable habitat for corals in the Coral Triangle region (A), kelp in South Australia (B) and seagrass in the Mediterranean (C) due to 3-D habitats compression during the 21stcentury (expressed as a % of present conditions) under the RCP8.5 scenario. The bars in the right express the range of values for scenarios RCP8.5 and RCP4.5. Note the different vertical axis in each panel.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Information

Reporting Summary

Supplementary Table 1

VIMs in large marine ecosystems. The averaged VIM value in each large marine ecosystem is presented with the average time needed for the present 30 °C sea surface temperature to reach the base of the photic layer. The large marine ecosystems are ordered as a function of this parameter.

Supplementary Table 2

Reported diebacks and enhanced mortality events of key benthic marine species attributed to warming.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Jorda, G., Marbà, N., Bennett, S. et al. Ocean warming compresses the three-dimensional habitat of marine life. Nat Ecol Evol 4, 109–114 (2020).

Download citation

Further reading


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing