Arctic tern sitting in long grass

How climate change affects nature

The ways in which climate change will impact on wildlife are quite complex and all of them interact.

Climate change

Studies of the global impact of climate change on wildlife have rightly made headlines:

  • A million species on the path, by 2050, towards extinction.
  • The collapse of our seabird populations.

Our report Nature of Climate Change summarises the impacts and gives examples of how we are responding.

There are some climate change winners, but the scientists predict the overwhelming effect of climate change upon biodiversity will be damaging.

The ways in which climate change will impact on wildlife are quite complex and all of them interact. They fall into the following broad categories:

  • Impacts on 'climate space'
    Favourable climate conditions are moving location, causing species distribution to shift typically north and uphill. 

  • Changes in timings of seasonal events
    For example, the hatching of insects in spring. These timing changes can affect the availability of food for young birds, leading to their starvation.

  • The impacts of extreme weather events
    Extreme events such as storms and droughts can kill individuals through cold, wet or starvation. Where these become more frequent, they can have effects at the population and species level.

  • Changes in community ecology
    Changes to competitive advantages between species, changes in location of species, and the spread and impacts of invasive species and diseases are likely to lead to markedly different communities of species than those we know now.

  • Changes in land use and management
    As the climate changes, farming, forestry, water management and many other land uses are already changing with it, and will change further. These activities are all-important for wildlife, and the way they adapt may offer both opportunities and threats to biodiversity.

The affect of migration

Many birds may also be affected on their migrations.

Habitats may change in stop-over locations, hostile areas may get larger, changes in wind patterns may hinder movement and of course birds require suitable conditions at both ends of their migration journeys.

Along with Cambridge and Durham universities, we have published a Climatic Atlas of European Breeding Birds, the overall messages from which are stark.

At 3º C average global temperature rise, the potential future range of the average species is predicted to shift nearly 340 miles (550 km) north-east. For some species, the potential future range does not overlap with the current range at all and there's an average overlap of current and potential future range of only 40 per cent across all species. The average potential future distribution shrinks by 20 per cent.

Yet these projections take account only of future climate conditions – and birds need suitable habitat in their new climate zones and the ability to get there. Clearly, future changes in species distribution of this magnitude are not all going to happen without considerable helping hand from nature conservation and land management.

Dartford warbler backlit with prey, Arne RSPB reserve, Dorset

Already seeing a shift

The impacts of climate change are not just for the future.

We're already picking up a wide range of signals across the natural world that change is already with us.

Spring is coming around 11 days earlier than 30 years ago. We've seen appalling breeding failures in some seabirds, due to food shortages caused by the changing ecology of warmer UK seas. We're seeing early examples of range shifts, with the spread of little egrets and Dartford warblers helped by warmer average temperatures in southern England. Our own management of nature reserves is starting to adapt to changing climate conditions, particularly in our coastal and wetland sites.

Our bold, ambitious Futurescapes programme, is a key part of our action to help wildlife adapt. Creating habitats for wildlife in the broader countryside, beyond nature reserves, will provide new places for wildlife to live and help the movement of wildlife required by changing climate conditions.