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Predicting potential climate change impacts with bioclimate envelope models: a palaeoecological perspective


David R. Roberts, Department of Renewable Resources, University of Alberta, 751 General Services Building, Edmonton, AB T6G 2H1, Canada. E-mail:


Aim  We assess the realism of bioclimate envelope model projections for anticipated future climates by validating ecosystem reconstructions for the late Quaternary with fossil and pollen data. Specifically, we ask: (1) do climate conditions with no modern analogue negatively affect the accuracy of ecosystem reconstructions? (2) are bioclimate envelope model projections biased towards under-predicting forested ecosystems? (3) given a palaeoecological perspective, are potential habitat projections for the 21st century within model capabilities?

Location  Western North America.

Methods  We used an ensemble classifier modelling approach (RandomForest) to spatially project the climate space of modern ecosystem classes throughout the Holocene (at 6000, 9000, 11,000, 14,000, 16,000, and 21,000 YBP) using palaeoclimate surfaces generated by two general circulation models (GFDL and CCM1). The degree of novel arrangement of climate variables was quantified with the multivariate Mahalanobis distance to the nearest modern climatic equivalent. Model projections were validated against biome classifications inferred from 1460 palaeoecological records.

Results  Model accuracy assessed against independent palaeoecology data is generally low for the present day, increases for 6000 YBP, and then rapidly declines towards the last glacial maximum, primarily due to the under-prediction of forested biomes. Misclassifications were closely correlated with the degree of climate dissimilarity from the present day. For future projections, no-analogue climates unexpectedly emerged in the coastal Pacific Northwest but were absent throughout the rest of the study area.

Main conclusions  Bioclimate envelope models could approximately reconstruct ecosystem distributions for the mid- to late-Holocene but proved unreliable in the Late Pleistocene. We attribute this failure to a combination of no-analogue climates and a potential lack of niche conservatism in tree species. However, climate dissimilarities in future projections are comparatively minor (similar to those of the mid-Holocene), and we conclude that no-analogue climates should not compromise the accuracy of model predictions for the next century.