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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.

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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.

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


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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.

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Authors and Affiliations



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.

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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.

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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).

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