The world is not flat: Defining relevant thermal landscapes in the context of climate change

Michael W. Sears, Evan Raskin, Michael Angilletta

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

208 Scopus citations


Although climates are rapidly changing on a global scale, these changes cannot easily be extrapolated to the local scales experienced by organisms. In fact, such generalizations might be quite problematic. For instance, models used to predict shifts in the ranges of species during climate change rarely incorporate data resolved to <1km 2, although most organisms integrate climatic drivers at much smaller scales. Empirical studies alone suggest that the operative temperatures of many organisms vary by as much as 10-20°C on a local scale, depending on vegetation, geology, and topography. Furthermore, this variation in abiotic factors ignores thermoregulatory behaviors that many animals use to balance heat loads. Through a set of simulations, we demonstrate how variability in elevational topography can attenuate the effects of warming climates. These simulations suggest that changing climates do not always impact organisms negatively. Importantly, these simulations involve well-known relationships in biophysical ecology that show how no two organisms experience the same climate in the same way. We suggest that, when coupled with thermoregulatory behavior, variation in topographic features can mask the acute effect of climate change in many cases.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)666-675
Number of pages10
JournalIntegrative and comparative biology
Issue number5
StatePublished - Nov 2011

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine(all)


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