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DayofthetriffidsWhat happens when climate change moves faster than plants can migrate?

It’s a good question. Throughout the history of life on Earth, species have shifted where they live in response to changing environmental conditions. Abrupt changes in climate and the environment  can outpace the speed at which plants can adapt. The consequence is local extinction.

The fossil record provides an indication of the rate at which plants can migrate:

  • 0.04 km/yr for the slowest species
  • 2 km/yr for the fastest species

Projected rates of temperature change, and therefore environmental change, exceed the migration speeds of many plant species, requiring migration rates of 1.5 to 5.5 km/yr. Many plant species will simply not be able to keep up, and ecosystems are going to see a lot of changes.

The future, therefore, looks weedy. Mobile, opportunistic and climatically tolerant species will do well in this unstable, fast changing world.


  1. Estimated migration rates under scenarios of global climate change. Malcom et al, 2002. [Link]
  2. Why can’t ecosystems just adapt? [Link]

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