Global warming is causing animals and plants to migrate further up mountains and away from the equator in attempts to avoid the higher temperatures associated with climate change, scientists have found in an exhaustive survey of nearly 1,400 species.
The rate of movement is on average up to three times faster than previously expected for species migrating towards the poles and about twice as fast for organisms that are migrating further up the sides of mountains, the scientists said.
A major review of the distribution of animals and plants, published in the journal Science, found wide variations between individual species but taken as a group there appears to be unequivocal evidence that climate change is the cause of the mass movement, said Professor Chris Thomas of the University of York.
"Species of animals and plants have been moving their distributions away from the equator and towards the poles much faster than previously realised. In fact species are moving northward in the northern hemisphere and southward in the southern hemisphere on average at a rate of about 16km or 17km per decade," Professor Thomas said.
"These changes are equivalent to animals and plants shifting away from the equator at around 20cm per hour, for every hour of the day, for every day of the year. This has been going on for the last 40 years and is set to continue for at least the rest of the century," he said.
"It's just a phenomenal rate of movement of the whole of biological life away from the equator towards the poles. How do we know it's related to climate change? Well partly because there is no other reasonable explanation for why everything should be moving to higher elevations and to higher latitudes, but also because we find the rate of movement is greater in the regions that have experienced the most warming," Professor Thomas explained.
"Climate change is a little bit off the political agenda at the moment but meanwhile it is still going on, species are still responding and there is a risk that many species may become extinct as a result of all these changes," he said.