Understanding climate change impacts in terrestrial environments

Understanding the threats of current and future climate change on sensitive species to aid conservation prioritisation and adaptation.



There is now overwhelming evidence that climate change is affecting terrestrial ecosystems. We therefore need to understand how this will combine with other pressures to alter the risks for species and affect their conservation priority.

For species at significant perceived risk, we need to assess whether these are already responding to climate change and, if so, what are the ecological and demographic mechanisms through which they are impacted.

It is only by identifying these pressure points that we can begin to devise sensible conservation solutions to assist adaptation to climate change.


  • To develop a set of robust climate change indicators illustrating impacts on bird populations and the efficacy of adaptation and mitigation measures.
  • To improve our knowledge of climate change risk assessment frameworks, and encourage rigorous and appropriate application in conservation priority setting. 
  • To understand the impacts of extreme weather events on birds and butterflies.
  • To determine the importance of  protected area networks for climate change adaptation.
  • To investigate mechanisms through which vulnerable species are impacted by climate change, and use this knowledge to develop adaptation solutions. 


Two PhD projects investigating climate change impacts on sensitive birds species have been completed and successfully defended.

The first project assessed the metapopulation dynamics of range expansion in Cetti's and Dartford warblers, as well as investigating the role of climate change in declines at the species' southern range edges, while the second examined potentially adverse impacts of climate change on the dotterel, an arctic-alpine specialist.

An ongoing RSPB project is characterising the microclimatic preferences of mountain ringlet butterflies, a species whose range has retracted uphill due to climate change.  

The project aims to develop habitat management that provides appropriate microclimates, enhancing the resilience of mountain ringlets in the face of climate change.

Another project is investigating climatic drivers of regional metapopulation dynamics in North Atlantic populations of Slavonian grebe.

Planned Work

We plan to update the Climate Impact Indices, and we are also interested in developing and exploring indicators linked to climate debt and adaptation.  

Working with the the University of York, we are conducting a climate change risk assessment for all European birds and butterflies, highlighting contrasts in risks assessed at national and continental scales, in order to help conservation prioritisation.

Similarly, for a range of European birds and butterflies, a project with the University of Sheffield is investigating the impacts of extreme weather events to determine the importance of this mechanism of climate change impact, and how it varies across species ranges.  

A new project for 2017-18 will examine correlates of population change in three threatened riverine bird species (common sandpiper, dipper and grey wagtail) in the UK, in particular focusing on potential climate change impacts.


Two papers have explored the development of Climate Change Indicators in Europe and North America and those indicators have been adopted for policy use in Europe and globally via the Biodiversity Indicators Partnership and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). These show a consistent and strong response of bird populations to climate change on two continents, both positive and negative on trends for different species in different places.

Working with the University of York, several papers have been authored showing conclusively that protected area networks will remain of crucial importance under climate change and, indeed, are already helping species to:
  • Advance their range at leading range edges
  • Resist change at trailing range edges.



Coast on a stormy day

Dr Steven Ewing

Senior Conservation Scientist, Conservation Science

Coast on a stormy day

Dr Richard Bradbury

Head of People Conservation Science, Conservation Science

Coast on a stormy day

Prof Richard Gregory

Head of Monitoring, Conservation Science

Tagged with: Country: England Country: Scotland Country: Iceland Country: Norway Habitat: Heathland Habitat: Upland Habitat: Wetland Species: Cetti's warbler Species: Common sandpiper Species: Dartford warbler Species: Dipper Species: Dotterel Species: Grey wagtail Species: Slavonian grebe Project status: Ongoing Project types: Research