A new study reveals that global warming is been driving animals and plants toward higher latitudes and higher ground at a rate much faster than previously thought.

The research, conducted by a team based at the University of York in England, found that species have been moving towards the poles as they are seeking cooler conditions at a rate almost three times the normal rate. For organisms that are migrating further up mountains, the average rate of movement is about twice as fast as realized.

A study of nearly 1,400 species of animals and plants by the research team has shown a specific trend of movement. On average, species have shifted to higher elevations at 12.2 meters per decade and, more dramatically, to higher latitudes at 17.6 kilometers per decade.

The results are published in the journal Science, and have helped to reinforce what scientists have long been saying — that there is a link between climate change and shifts in species' global ranges.

“These changes are equivalent to animals and plants shifting away from the equator at around 20 cm per hour, for every hour of the day, for every day of the year. This has been going on for the last 40 years and is set to continue for at least the rest of this century, said Chris Thomas, project leader and professor of conservation biology at the University of York in the United Kingdom.

Realization of how fast species are moving because of climate change indicates that many species may indeed be heading rapidly towards extinction, where climatic conditions are deteriorating. On the other hand, other species are moving to new areas where the climate has become suitable; so there will be some winners as well as many losers, said Thomas.

This research shows that it is global warming that is causing species to move towards the poles and to higher elevations. We have for the first time shown that the amount by which the distributions of species have changed is correlated with the amount the climate has changed in that region, said lead author I-Ching Chen, previously a PhD student at York and now a researcher at the Academia Sinica in Taiwan.

We were able to calculate how far species might have been expected to move so that the temperatures they experience today are the same as the ones they used to experience, before global warming kicked in. Remarkably, species have on average moved towards the poles as rapidly as expected, stated co-author Dr Ralf Ohlemüller, from Durham University.

Although species are moving much more rapidly than the expected mean, they are not all shifting toward colder climates. The study pointed out that 75 percent of the species show a tendency to relocate to cooler places, while 25 percent have moved to areas of lower latitude or elevation.

This might have been the result of fierce competition or a response to drastic changes in rainfall,” Chen said.