Local temperatures inferred from plant communities suggest strong spatial buffering of climate warming across Northern Europe


Correspondence: Jonathan Lenoir, tel. 0033 7 62 82 94 40, fax 0033 3 22 82 54 21, E-mail:


Recent studies from mountainous areas of small spatial extent (<2500 km2) suggest that fine-grained thermal variability over tens or hundreds of metres exceeds much of the climate warming expected for the coming decades. Such variability in temperature provides buffering to mitigate climate-change impacts. Is this local spatial buffering restricted to topographically complex terrains? To answer this, we here study fine-grained thermal variability across a 2500-km wide latitudinal gradient in Northern Europe encompassing a large array of topographic complexities. We first combined plant community data, Ellenberg temperature indicator values, locally measured temperatures (LmT) and globally interpolated temperatures (GiT) in a modelling framework to infer biologically relevant temperature conditions from plant assemblages within <1000-m2 units (community-inferred temperatures: CiT). We then assessed: (1) CiT range (thermal variability) within 1-km2 units; (2) the relationship between CiT range and topographically and geographically derived predictors at 1-km resolution; and (3) whether spatial turnover in CiT is greater than spatial turnover in GiT within 100-km2 units. Ellenberg temperature indicator values in combination with plant assemblages explained 46–72% of variation in LmT and 92–96% of variation in GiT during the growing season (June, July, August). Growing-season CiT range within 1-km2 units peaked at 60–65°N and increased with terrain roughness, averaging 1.97 °C (SD = 0.84 °C) and 2.68 °C (SD = 1.26 °C) within the flattest and roughest units respectively. Complex interactions between topography-related variables and latitude explained 35% of variation in growing-season CiT range when accounting for sampling effort and residual spatial autocorrelation. Spatial turnover in growing-season CiT within 100-km2 units was, on average, 1.8 times greater (0.32 °C km−1) than spatial turnover in growing-season GiT (0.18 °C km−1). We conclude that thermal variability within 1-km2 units strongly increases local spatial buffering of future climate warming across Northern Europe, even in the flattest terrains.