The projected timing of abrupt ecological disruption from climate change

Abstract

As anthropogenic climate change continues the risks to biodiversity will increase over time, with future projections indicating that a potentially catastrophic loss of global biodiversity is on the horizon1,2,3. However, our understanding of when and how abruptly this climate-driven disruption of biodiversity will occur is limited because biodiversity forecasts typically focus on individual snapshots of the future. Here we use annual projections (from 1850 to 2100) of temperature and precipitation across the ranges of more than 30,000 marine and terrestrial species to estimate the timing of their exposure to potentially dangerous climate conditions. We project that future disruption of ecological assemblages as a result of climate change will be abrupt, because within any given ecological assemblage the exposure of most species to climate conditions beyond their realized niche limits occurs almost simultaneously. Under a high-emissions scenario (representative concentration pathway (RCP) 8.5), such abrupt exposure events begin before 2030 in tropical oceans and spread to tropical forests and higher latitudes by 2050. If global warming is kept below 2 °C, less than 2% of assemblages globally are projected to undergo abrupt exposure events of more than 20% of their constituent species; however, the risk accelerates with the magnitude of warming, threatening 15% of assemblages at 4 °C, with similar levels of risk in protected and unprotected areas. These results highlight the impending risk of sudden and severe biodiversity losses from climate change and provide a framework for predicting both when and where these events may occur.

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Fig. 1: Biodiversity climate horizon profiles.
Fig. 2: Global variation in the magnitude, abruptness and timing of horizon profiles.
Fig. 3: Abruptness of horizon profiles locally compared with globally, and the accelerating risk with global warming.
Fig. 4: The risk of high-magnitude, abrupt assemblage exposure events.

Data availability

All datasets used here are publicly available. Expert verified range maps are available from https://www.iucnredlist.org/resources/spatial-data-download and http://datazone.birdlife.org/species/requestdis. Climate change projections for RCP 8.5, RCP 4.5 and RCP 2.6 for CMIP5 are available from https://esgf-node.llnl.gov/search/cmip5/. Maps of projected risk to biodiversity from climate change are available to view at https://climatehorizons.users.earthengine.app/view/biodiversity-risk.

Code availability

Computer code used in the analysis is available on request from the corresponding author. Code and data that were used to make Figs. 24 is available at Figshare (https://doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.11814633).

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Acknowledgements

We thank G. Mace and O. Petchey for comments on pre-submission drafts of the manuscript. This study has been supported by the following institutions and grants: the Royal Society, UK, to A.L.P.; the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center under funding received from the National Science Foundation DBI-1639145 and the FLAIR Fellowship Programme: a partnership between the African Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society funded by the UK Government’s Global Challenges Research Fund, to C.H.T.; and NSF grants 1565046 and 1661510, to C.M.

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Contributions

A.L.P., C.H.T. and C.M. conceived the study, processed the species and climate data, performed the analysis and wrote the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Alex L. Pigot.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Peer review information Nature thanks Joanne Bennett, Anthony Richardson, Jennifer Sunday and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Fig. 1 Spatial distribution of the magnitude, abruptness and timing of assemblage exposure for alternative climate variables.

ac, Shown is the median value across 22 CMIP5 climate models for MAT (a), MMT (b) and precipitation (c) under RCP 2.6, RCP 4.5 and RCP 8.5.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Comparing the magnitude, timing and abruptness of assemblage exposure across alternative climate variables.

ac, Patterns of exposure to both MAT and precipitation combined are very similar to patterns of exposure to MAT only, highlighting the importance of changes in temperature in driving exposure. di, Patterns of exposure to unprecedented temperatures show both similarities and differences depending on whether temperature is quantified using MAT or MMT. More species are exposed and exposure occurs earlier for MAT compared with MMT, but spatial variation in the magnitude (d, g) and timing (e, h) of exposure are strongly correlated between temperature variables. Variation in the abruptness of assemblage exposure is less strongly correlated between MAT and MMT (f), but both variables confirm the abruptness of projected exposure (i). Values are the median across 22 CMIP5 climate models under RCP 8.5, with hotter colours indicating a higher density of points. Points falling along the dashed 1:1 line indicate a perfect correspondence between metrics. The correlation between metrics (Spearman’s ρ), and the mean difference in the timing of exposure (years), is shown.

Extended Data Fig. 3 Uncertainty in species local exposure metrics across 22 CMIP5 climate models under RCP 8.5.

Uncertainty (standard deviation, SD) in the magnitude of exposure is greatest around the boundaries of the tropics, with little geographic variation in uncertainty in timing or abruptness.

Extended Data Fig. 4 Abruptness of horizon profiles.

Density plots (left) show the distribution of abruptness values for different CMIP5 climate models (n = 22, lines) and RCPs on land (red) and in the ocean (blue). Histograms (right) show the median abruptness across climate models under RCP 8.5 for each group of organisms. Abruptness is calculated as the percentage of exposure times occurring within the decadal window of maximum exposure (colours). Abruptness is also shown for an alternative metric based on the Shannon entropy index (grey) with values scaled between 0 and 100, indicating the most gradual and the most abrupt distribution of exposure times possible for a given assemblage, respectively. Exposure is consistently abrupt across climate models, RCP scenarios, metrics and organism groups.

Extended Data Fig. 5 Predicting the timing, magnitude and abruptness of local species exposure.

ah, On land (left) and in the ocean (right) the median timing of exposure (a, b) is weakly correlated (Spearman’s ρ) with the timing of local climate emergence. The magnitude of exposure (c, d) is weakly correlated with the magnitude of warming between the start (2000–2020) and the end (2090–2100) of the twenty-first century. The abruptness of exposure (percentage of local species exposure times that occur in the decade of maximum exposure) is only partly correlated with the maximum rate of warming (maximum difference in mean temperature between successive decades) (e, f) or the percentage of species with nowhere warmer within 1,000 km of their range (g, h). Values are the median across 22 CMIP5 climate models under RCP 8.5. Hotter colours indicate a higher density of points.

Extended Data Fig. 6 The different dimensions of climate risk to species assemblages.

ac, Bivariate plots showing the strong correlation among alternative metrics for the timing of local assemblage exposure: the median year of local species exposure, the mean year of local species exposure and the mid-point of the decadal window of worst (that is, maximum) local species exposure. df, Bivariate plots showing the weaker correlation between the magnitude, abruptness and timing of exposure across assemblages. Values are the median across 22 CMIP5 climate models under RCP 8.5, with hotter colours indicating a higher density of points. In ac, points falling along the dashed 1:1 line indicate a perfect correspondence between metrics. The correlation between metrics (Spearman’s ρ) is shown, as well as (for ac) the mean difference in the timing of exposure (years).

Extended Data Fig. 7 Accumulation of exposure to unprecedented temperatures at decadal time snapshots from 2030 to 2100.

Light grey indicates zero local species exposure. Maps show the median across 22 CMIP5 climate models under RCP 8.5, highlighting the immediate onset of exposure in the tropics that spreads to higher latitudes later in the century.

Extended Data Fig. 8 The global biodiversity horizon profile.

ad, The cumulative exposure to unprecedented temperatures of all local species populations (that is, species X site aggregated across all sites) increases smoothly over time at the global scale. Global horizon profiles are shown when species are weighted by the inverse of their geographic range size (equivalent to the mean percentage of the geographic range exposed) (a, b) or are given equivalent weighting (df). In df, dynamics are dominated by species with many local populations (that is, large geographic ranges). Variability in exposure across 22 climate models (thin lines) is shown for each RCP scenario (median, thick line).

Extended Data Fig. 9 The global distribution in the risk of high-magnitude and abrupt assemblage exposure events under different representative concentration pathways.

Maps show the probability of abrupt exposure calculated across 22 CMIP5 climate models. The risk of abrupt exposure was calculated on the basis of all species in an assemblage (left column) and for each group of organisms separately (right column). The maps highlight the greater risk of abrupt exposure events under intermediate (RCP 4.5) and especially under high (RCP 8.5) emission pathways, and when considering taxonomic groups separately.

Extended Data Fig. 10 Abruptness of horizon profiles for terrestrial vertebrates in 100-km grid cells with low or high spatial temperature heterogeneity.

Red, low heterogeneity; grey, high heterogeneity. Abruptness is calculated as the percentage of species exposure times in the decade of maximum exposure. Temperature heterogeneity is the range in temperatures at 1-km resolution within each 100-km cell. Assemblages with abrupt exposure have lower temperature heterogeneity, which suggests that quantifying species niches at finer spatial resolutions is unlikely to alter the abrupt nature of assemblage exposure dynamics.

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Trisos, C.H., Merow, C. & Pigot, A.L. The projected timing of abrupt ecological disruption from climate change. Nature 580, 496–501 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-020-2189-9

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