Ecology Plant Ecological Responses to Extreme Climatic Events
Andrew J. Felton, Melinda D. Smith
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 November 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0165


The ecology of extreme climatic events is a relatively new focus within ecological research. Early ecological studies on extreme climate events were primarily limited to opportunistic approaches, where observations were made within the context of naturally occurring events, such as droughts. With the progression of climate change, there has been increasing recognition of climate extremes—such as droughts, deluges, and heat waves—as important drivers of contemporary and future ecosystem dynamics, leading to increases in manipulative experimental approaches. In this review we focus on the ecology of plant responses to climatic extremes. We focus on primary producers because they typically form the structural component of ecosystems and are the main pathway for energy capture. In order to provide a holistic literature resource, we address multiple scales and types of responses within each section, from the plant community level to the ecosystem level. What is clear from both observational and experimental studies is that ecological responses to extreme climate events are often highly variable, differing by both the type and magnitude of response, and further depend upon the scale (e.g., individual or community) considered. Observed variations in ecological responses are likely to result from differential attributes of systems (e.g., biodiversity, species’ traits, or biogeochemistry) and climatic contexts (e.g., magnitude and duration of the event, historical climatic variability). Nevertheless, climate extremes often produce large and prolonged effects at the species, community, and ecosystem levels. Observed variation in previous studies highlights both the dynamic nature of ecological responses to extreme climate events and the need for standardized research approaches to effectively compare responses across ecosystems and ecological scales.

General Overviews

The selected articles are meant to offer both breadth and specific examples of climatic trends, modeling approaches, and plant ecological responses to a broad range of climatic extremes. Easterling, et al. 2000 and Stocker, et al. 2013 are key references for a summary of 20th-century trends in climatic extremes and forecasted changes for the 21st century. Christensen and Christensen 2003 and Rahmstorf and Coumou 2011 utilize models to demonstrate the increased likelihood of extreme events amid atmospheric warming. Comprehensive overviews specific to ecological responses to extreme climatic events are provided in Jentsch and Beierkuhnlein 2008 and Smith 2011. Reichstein, et al. 2013 further extends the dynamics of ecological responses into ecosystem biogeochemistry and the global carbon cycle. Finally, detailed overviews concerning plant responses to climatic extremes are provided in Niu, et al. 2014 and Reyer, et al. 2013.

  • Christensen, Jens H., and Ole B. Christensen. 2003. Climate modeling: Severe summertime flooding in Europe. Nature 421:805–806.

    DOI: 10.1038/421805a

    Utilizes a high-resolution model to demonstrate that, despite predicted trends toward more arid conditions, atmospheric warming will increase the likelihood of extreme precipitation events (i.e., those that exceed the 95th percentile). This result suggests that despite decreased average precipitation, periodic flooding events may become a more common driver of terrestrial ecosystem dynamics.

  • Easterling, D. R., G. A. Meehl, C. Parmesan, S. A. Changnon, T. R. Karl, and L. O. Mearns. 2000. Climate extremes: Observations, modeling, and impacts. Science 289:2068–2074.

    DOI: 10.1126/science.289.5487.2068

    This paper presents a summary of 20th-century global trends in the occurrence of temperature and precipitation extremes, as well as tropical storms. Climate model performance and the impacts of climate extremes on societal and ecological systems are also discussed.

  • Jentsch, A., and C. Beierkuhnlein. 2008. Research frontiers in climate change: Effects of extreme meteorological events on ecosystems. Comptes Rendus Geoscience 340:621–628.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.crte.2008.07.002

    This paper summarizes past observations and future projections of meteorological extremes and their societal and ecological consequences. The paper further identifies specific knowledge gaps in ecosystem responses to meteorological extremes, and the associated research challenges in addressing them.

  • Jentsch, A., J. Kreyling, and C. Beierkuhnlein. 2007. A new generation of climate-change experiments: Events, not trends. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 5.7: 365–374.

    DOI: 10.1890/1540-9295(2007)5[365:ANGOCE]2.0.CO;2

    This article discusses the emerging ecological importance of climate extremes and the utility of controlled experiments that simulate extreme climate events. The article further suggests future research needs utilizing manipulative experiments that simulate climate extremes.

  • Niu, S., Y. Luo, D. Li, et al. 2014. Plant growth and mortality under climatic extremes: An overview. Environmental and Experimental Botany 98:13–19.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.envexpbot.2013.10.004

    This paper provides a comprehensive overview of plant-specific responses to multiple types of extreme climate events. It also further discusses the biochemical, physiological, and morphological mechanisms underlying plant responses, and contains many useful references.

  • Rahmstorf, Stefan, and Dim Coumou. 2011. Increase of extreme events in a warming world. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 108:17905–17909.

    DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1101766108

    This study utilizes a statistical model to demonstrate that current anthropogenic-driven warming trends contribute substantially to an increased likelihood of temperature extremes. The authors further test their model against empirical data utilizing the 2010 Moscow heat wave and long-term climate data and find strong support for their model.

  • Reichstein, M., M. Bahn, P. Ciais, et al. 2013. Climate extremes and the carbon cycle. Nature 500:287–295.

    DOI: 10.1038/nature12350

    This article provides an overview of the mechanisms and uncertainties related to extreme climate event effects on terrestrial ecosystem carbon cycling, with an emphasis on ecosystem-level and biogeochemical impacts.

  • Reyer, Christopher P. O., Sebastian Leuzinger, Anja Rammig, et al. 2013. A plant’s perspective of extremes: Terrestrial plant responses to changing climatic variability. Global Change Biology 19:75–89.

    DOI: 10.1111/gcb.12023

    This paper provides a good review on the relative sensitivities of different plant processes to climatic variability and extremity. The paper synthesizes observational, experimental, and modeling approaches and offers recommendations for future research. Contains many useful references.

  • Smith, M. D. 2011. The ecological role of climate extremes: Current understanding and future prospects. In Special issue: Ecological consequences of climate extremes. Edited by M. D. Smith. Journal of Ecology 99:651–655.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2745.2011.01833.x

    This paper addresses the importance of shifting climatic baselines in understanding the ecological impacts of climate extremes and the need for new approaches to study the impacts of climate extremes on ecosystems.

  • Stocker, T. F., D. Qin, G. K. Plattner, et al., eds. 2013.Climate change 2013: The physical science basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the fifth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    This report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) presents a detailed overview on past and current climate change trends and future trajectories of anthropogenic climate change, with particular attention to extreme events.

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