Impacts to Species and Habitats

Climate is an important environmental influence on ecosystems. Climate changes and the impacts of climate change affect ecosystems in a variety of ways. For instance, warming is likely to force some species to migrate to higher latitudes or higher elevations where temperatures are more conducive to their survival. Similarly, as sea level rises, saltwater intrusion into a freshwater system may force some key species to relocate or die, thus removing predators or prey that were critical in the existing food chain. Negative impacts to species and habitats have already been observed.

Climate change not only affects ecosystems and species directly – it also interacts with other human stressors such as development. Although some stressors cause only minor impacts when acting alone, their cumulative impact may lead to dramatic ecological changes.  For instance, climate change may exacerbate the stress that land development places on fragile coastal areas. Additionally, recently logged forested areas may become more vulnerable to erosion if climate change leads to increases in heavy rain storms. Fragmentation of open spaces due to existing land use patterns may reduce the ability of species and habitats to shift to respond to changes in temperature and precipitation patters. Specific impacts that are already being observed and that are likely to increase due to climate change include:

Species shifts and habitat changes are being observed worldwide. Image source: Washington Post. Learn more from US EPA and the National Wildlife Federation.