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

Oliver J. Wilson, Oliver L. Pescott*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


1. 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. 

2. 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. 

3. 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. 

4. 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. 

5. 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. 

6. 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.

Original languageEnglish
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Applied Ecology
Early online date28 Jun 2023
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 28 Jun 2023

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank Simon Smart and Claire Wood (UKCEH) for their help in accessing and extracting the rolling Countryside Survey location data, and Hannah Risser (UKCEH) for providing the ECN and LTMN location data. The NPMS is funded by the UK Joint Nature Conservation Committee (ref. A17‐0291‐1205); O.L.P. was also supported by the NERC award number NE/R016429/1 to UK CEH as part of the UK Status, Change and Projections of the Environment (UK‐SCAPE) program delivering National Capability. The NPMS thanks all current and past participants for contributing so much of their time and expertise to improving knowledge of our wild plants. We thank Kevin Walker (Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland), Rachel Murphy (Plantlife), Simon Kallow and Anna Robinson (Joint Nature Conservation Committee), and two anonymous reviewers for their comments on the manuscript.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2023 The Authors. Journal of Applied Ecology published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd on behalf of British Ecological Society.


  • climate change
  • climate change exposure
  • data synthesis
  • ecological monitoring
  • risk of bias

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