Assessing the exposure of UK habitats to 20th- and 21st-century climate change, and its representation in ecological monitoring schemes.

Published online
18 Jan 2024
Content type
Journal article
Journal title
Journal of Applied Ecology

Wilson, O. J. & Pescott, O. L.
Contact email(s)

Publication language
England & UK


Climate change is a significant driver of contemporary biodiversity change. Ecological monitoring schemes can be crucial in highlighting its consequences, but connecting and interpreting observed climatic and ecological changes demands an understanding of monitored locations' exposure to climate change. Generalising from trends in monitored sites to habitats also requires an assessment of how closely sampled locations' climate change trajectories mirror those of wider ecosystems. Such assessments are rare but vital for drawing robust ecological conclusions. Focusing on the UK, we generated a metric of climate change exposure by quantifying the change in observed historical (1901-2019) and predicted future (2021-2080, pessimistic emissions scenario) conditions. We then assessed habitat-specific climate change exposure by overlaying the resulting data with maps of contemporary (2019) land cover. Finally, we compared patterns of climate change exposure in locations sampled by ecological monitoring schemes to random samples from wider habitats. The UK's climate changed significantly between the early 20th century and the last decade, and is predicted to undergo even greater changes (including the development of Iberian/Mediterranean climate types in places) into the 21st century. Climate change exposure is unevenly distributed: regionally, it falls more in southern, central and eastern England; locally, it is greater at higher-elevation locations than nearby areas at lower elevations. Areas with contemporary arable and horticulture, urban, calcareous grassland and suburban land cover are predicted to experience the greatest overall climatic change, though other habitats experienced relatively greater change than these in the first half of the 20th century. The extent to which locations sampled by ecological monitoring schemes represent broader habitat-level gradients of climate change exposure varies. Monitored sites' coverage of wider trends is heterogeneous across habitats, time periods and schemes. Policy implications. UK ecological monitoring schemes can effectively, though variably, capture the effects of climate change on habitats. To improve their performance, climate change could be explicitly included in the design of such programmes. Additionally, our findings on how effectively different datasets represent wider patterns of climate change are crucial for informing syntheses of ecological change connected to shifting atmospheric conditions.

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