Climate change is already exposing species to dangerous temperatures driving widespread population and geographical contractions. However, little is known about how these risks of thermal exposure will expand across species’ existing geographical ranges over time as climate change continues. Here, using geographical data for approximately 36,000 marine and terrestrial species and climate projections to 2100, we show that the area of each species’ geographical range at risk of thermal exposure will expand abruptly. On average, more than 50% of the increase in exposure projected for a species will occur in a single decade. This abruptness is partly due to the rapid pace of future projected warming but also because the greater area available at the warm end of thermal gradients constrains species to disproportionately occupy sites close to their upper thermal limit. These geographical constraints on the structure of species ranges operate both on land and in the ocean and mean that, even in the absence of amplifying ecological feedbacks, thermally sensitive species may be inherently vulnerable to sudden warming-driven collapse. With higher levels of warming, the number of species passing these thermal thresholds, and at risk of abrupt and widespread thermal exposure, increases, doubling from less than 15% to more than 30% between 1.5 °C and 2.5 °C of global warming. These results indicate that climate threats to thousands of species are expected to expand abruptly in the coming decades, thereby highlighting the urgency of mitigation and adaptation actions.
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Climate and biodiversity data are freely available for download or upon request from the original sources. Data generated for this project are available at https://doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.22723889.
The code used to conduct the analysis is available at https://doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.22723889.
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We thank the many people who have contributed to and maintain the freely available biodiversity and climate datasets on which this project depends. We are grateful to J. Bridle for insightful discussions. This study has been supported by a Royal Society UK University Research Fellowship and Natural Environment Research Council grant no. NE/W006618/1 to A.L.P., a Royal Society UK & African Academy of Sciences Future Leaders–African Independent Research Fellowship Programme and National Science Foundation grant no. DBI-1639145 to C.H.T., National Science Foundation grant no. DBI-1565046 to C.M. and a NASA Ecological Forecasting Team Applied Sciences Program grant no. 80NSSC21K1183 to A.W.
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Extended Data Fig. 1 Metrics of species exposure dynamics.
Exemplar patterns of thermal exposure are shown for four species (a) Pristimantis malkini, (b) Telescopus beetzi, (c) Pectinia pygmaeus and (d) Abudefduf declivifrons for a single run of the Whole Atmosphere Community Climate Model (CESM2-WACCM) under an intermediate greenhouse gas emissions scenario (SSP2-4.5). Black lines show the cumulative % of grid cells thermally exposed across each species’ geographic range. Magnitude is the percentage of grid cells in the geographic range exposed by 2100. Onset and median timing is the first and median year of grid cell exposure respectively. Abruptness is the maximum percentage of 21st century exposure occurring in any single decadal window. The light grey window indicates the decade of worst exposure, with the dark grey block indicating the magnitude of exposure events occurring in that decade.
Extended Data Fig. 2 Predictability in the year of thermal exposure across species geographic ranges.
Boxplots show the distribution of independent slope estimates from a linear model predicting the year of thermal exposure from (a) the magnitude of warming between the beginning (2005-2014) and end (2091-2100) of the 21st century and (b) the grid cell warming tolerance (WT), calculated as the difference between the grid cell temperature at the beginning of the century (2005-2014) and the species’ upper realised thermal limit. Only species where at least 10 grid cells are exposed this century are included (n = 14,403). Slope estimates are the median across CMIP6 climate models under an intermediate greenhouse gas emissions scenario (SSP2-4.5). Boxes show the 25th and 75th percentile and the whiskers ± 1.5 x Interquartile range.
Extended Data Fig. 3 Variation in the magnitude, abruptness and timing of thermal exposure across species geographic ranges.
Plots show the covariation across species between each pair of exposure metrics. Species values are the median metric scores across CMIP6 climate models with warmer colours indicating a higher density of points. Magnitude is the percentage of grid cells in the species’ geographic range thermally exposed by 2100. Timing is the year of onset of grid cell exposure within each species geographic range. Abruptness is the maximum percentage of 21st century exposure occurring in any single decadal window. Rows show different greenhouse gas emission scenarios. Sample sizes vary across plots because timing scores are only calculated for species that are thermally exposed before 2100 and abruptness is only shown for species with at least 10 grid cells thermally exposed by 2100.
Extended Data Fig. 4 Skew in grid cell warming tolerances across terrestrial and marine species geographic ranges based on (a-c) simulated and (d-f) observed climate data.
Histograms show: (a,d) the interval (10%) of the realised thermal niche with the highest density of grid cells, (b,e) the skew in grid cell warming tolerances within species geographic ranges and (c,f) the proportion of each species geographic range that occurs in the warm half of the species’ realised thermal niche. Results are based on (a-c) the median scores across CMIP6 climate models under an intermediate greenhouse gas emission scenario (SSP2-4.5) and (d-f) air and sea-surface temperature from observed weather data. Metrics were only calculated for species occurring in at least 30 grid cells on land (n = 15,195 species) or in the ocean (n = 3,519 species).
Extended Data Fig. 5 The warm-skewed availability of air and sea-surface temperatures globally.
Top: Density plots show the distribution of average (2005-2014) maximum mean monthly (MMT) air (land) and sea-surface temperatures (ocean) calculated from the historical run of each CMIP6 climate model. Each curve shows a different CMIP6 model. Bottom: Density plots show the mean maximum monthly air (1970-2000) and sea-surface temperature (2000-2014) from observed spatially interpolated weather and satellite data. Each curve shows the distribution when temperatures are averaged at different spatial grain sizes (from 1 to 768 km).
Extended Data Fig. 6 The warm-skewed structure of species geographic ranges compared to a null model of random grid cell occupancy.
Histograms show: (a) the interval (10%) of the realised thermal niche with the greatest density of grid cells, (b) the skew in grid cell warming tolerances within species geographic ranges and (c) the proportion of each species geographic range that occurs in the warm half of the species’ realised thermal niche. Colors denote species where grid cells within observed species geographic ranges are skewed towards the warm (red) or cold (blue) edge of the realised thermal niche according to each metric. Brackets show the expected pattern (minimum and maximum values across 20 replicate simulations) under a null model of random grid cell occupancy. Results are based on average air and sea-surface temperature from observed weather data. Metrics were only calculated for species occurring in at least 30 grid cells (n = 18,714 species).
Extended Data Fig. 7 The area of species’ existing geographic ranges at risk of abrupt thermal exposure.
(a-c) Scatter plots show the relationship between the abruptness of thermal exposure and the number of 100 km grid cells in the species’ geographic range exposed by 2100 (that is area of thermal exposure). Abruptness is the maximum percentage of 21st century exposure occurring in any single decadal window. In (b, d) the distribution of abruptness scores is shown after removing species where fewer than n grid cells (n = 10, 25, 50, 100, 250 grid cells) are thermally exposed by 2100. Results for different thresholds are indicated by colored lines, corresponding to the vertical lines in (a, c). Values are the abruptness and area of thermal exposure for each species across CMIP6 climate models under an intermediate SSP2-4.5 (a-b) and high SSP5-8.5 (c-d) greenhouse gas emission scenario (n = 35,863 species).
Supplementary Figs. 1–5.
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Pigot, A.L., Merow, C., Wilson, A. et al. Abrupt expansion of climate change risks for species globally. Nat Ecol Evol (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-023-02070-4