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- Climate change threats to plant diversity in Europe

Climate change threats to plant diversity in Europe

Wilfried Thuiller,*§ Sandra Lavorel,* Miguel B. Araújo,* Martin T. Sykes,** and I. Colin Prentice††
*Centre d'Ecologie Fonctionnelle et Evolutive, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique-Unité Mixte de Recherche 5175, 1919 Route de Mende, 34293 Montpellier Cedex 5, France; Climate Change Research Group, Kirstenbosch Research Center, National Botanical Institute, P/Bag x7, Claremont 7735, Cape Town, South Africa; Macroecology and Conservation Unit, University of Évora, Estrada dos Leões, 7000-730 Évora, Portugal; Laboratoire d'Ecologie Alpine, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique-Unité Mixte de Recherche 5553, Université J. Fournier, B.P. 53X, 38041 Grenoble Cedex 9, France; Biodiversity Research Group, School of Geography and the Environment, Oxford University, Mansfield Road, Oxford OX1 3TB, United Kingdom; **Geobiosphere Science Centre, Department of Physical Geography and Ecosystems Analysis, Lund University, Sölvegatan 12, 223 62 Lund, Sweden; and ††QUEST, Department of Earth Sciences, University of Bristol, Wills Memorial Building, Queen's Road, Bristol BS8 1RJ, United Kingdom
§ To whom correspondence should be addressed. E-mail: [email protected].
Edited by Harold A. Mooney, Stanford University, Stanford, CA
Received December 31, 2004; Accepted April 26, 2005.

Freely available online through the PNAS open access option. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2005 June 7; 102(23): 8245–8250.


Climate change has already triggered species distribution shifts in many parts of the world. Increasing impacts are expected for the future, yet few studies have aimed for a general understanding of the regional basis for species vulnerability. We projected late 21st century distributions for 1,350 European plants species under seven climate change scenarios. Application of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources Red List criteria to our projections shows that many European plant species could become severely threatened. More than half of the species we studied could be vulnerable or threatened by 2080. Expected species loss and turnover per pixel proved to be highly variable across scenarios (27-42% and 45-63% respectively, averaged over Europe) and across regions (2.5-86% and 17-86%, averaged over scenarios). Modeled species loss and turnover were found to depend strongly on the degree of change in just two climate variables describing temperature and moisture conditions. Despite the coarse scale of the analysis, species from mountains could be seen to be disproportionably sensitive to climate change (≈60% species loss). The boreal region was projected to lose few species, although gaining many others from immigration. The greatest changes are expected in the transition between the Mediterranean and Euro-Siberian regions. We found that risks of extinction for European plants may be large, even in moderate scenarios of climate change and despite inter-model variability.

Keywords: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change storylines, species extinction, species turnover, niche-based model



Recent rapid climate change is already affecting a wide variety of organisms (1, 2). Long-term data indicate that the anomalous climate of the past half-century is already affecting the physiology, distribution, and phenology of some species in ways that are consistent with theoretical predictions (3). Although natural climate variation and nonclimatic factors such as land transformation may well be responsible for some of these trends, human-induced climate and atmospheric change are the most parsimonious explanation for many (3, 4).

Several studies have modeled future species distributions at regional (5-8) and local scales (9, 10) and have extrapolated alarming extinction risks for the next century (11). However, few studies have considered the consequences of multiple climate-change scenarios (7, 8), which represent the outcome of different assumptions about the future (12). Using four representative scenarios and three different climate models (HadCM3, CGCM2, and CSIRO2), and a range of niche-based modeling techniques implemented in biomod (13), we develop predictions of the potential consequences for 1,350 plant species in Europe. The “future climate” we contrast with today's climate (averaged from 1961 to 1990) is the projected mean for the period from 2051 to 2080.

The “bioclimatic envelope” describes the conditions under which populations of a species persist in the presence of other biota as well as climatic constraints (6, 14). Future distributions are projected on the assumption that current envelopes reflect species' environmental preferences, which will be retained under climate change. This principle has strong support from studies demonstrating the evolutionary conservatism of ecological niches and the phylogenetic inertia of species across time scales (15, 16) and comparative biogeographical studies (17, 18). However, this approach also assumes instantaneous species-range change, it ignores physiological CO2 responses, and it does not capture details of population dynamics or biotic interactions nor the lags in spatial range shifts associated with processes of dispersal, establishment, and local extinction. To assess the sensitivity of projections to the most critical of these assumptions, we considered two contrasting assumptions about migration ability (7, 8, 11): either species are unable to disperse at all on the time scale considered (no migration), or they have no constraints to dispersal and establishment (universal migration). The reality for most species is likely to fall between these extremes, depending on their ability to migrate across fragmented landscapes (19). We calculated losses of climatically suitable areas (“species loss”) assuming no migration and gains (“species gain”) and turnover (“species turnover”) assuming universal migration.


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