Climate Change Vulnerability Index

Standards & Methods


The American pika thrives in the cooler temperatures and alpine vegetation of rocky slopes near the tops of mountains. As temperatures rise, the pika is forced to move farther up the mountain—constricting its natural range and crowding into existing habitats. The NatureServe Climate Change Vulnerability Index identifies plant and animal species that are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Using the Index, you apply readily available information about a species’ natural history, distribution and landscape circumstances to predict whether it will likely suffer a range contraction and/or population reductions due to climate change. You can use the Index as part of a variety of analyses, including assessing the relative risk of species listed in State Wildlife Action Plans or part of any assessment of the vulnerability of species to climate change.

Download Version 2.1


Land-management and natural-resource professionals are increasingly asked to identify which of the plants and animals that inhabit the lands and waters they manage are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. But the factors that influence the exposure and response of any given species are numerous, making assessments in this complex and rapidly emerging field of study difficult.

The NatureServe Climate Change Vulnerability Index translates research findings into useful guidelines that enable practitioners and policy-makers to identify emerging and anticipated threats to biodiversity. The tool also supports regional approaches and broader contexts thanks to its reliance on standardized data that extends across state boundaries. By enabling those responsible for managing lands to assess species’ relative vulnerability—as well as the relative importance of factors contributing to such assessments—the Index can help them prioritize management strategies for climate change adaptation and develop actions that increase the resilience of species to climate change.

Features & Benefits

The Climate Change Vulnerability Index provides a rapid, cost-effective means of estimating a plant or animal species’ relative vulnerability to climate change. It combines readily accessible information on the natural history, distribution, and management with downscaled climate predictions from tools like Climate Wizard. The Index can be used for both rare and common plants and animals—an important factor given that overall conservation status has proven to be an unreliable proxy for vulnerability to climate change.

The Index separates vulnerability into its two primary components: a species’ exposure to climate change within a particular assessment area and its inherent sensitivity to climate change. The tool then gauges 20 scientifically documented factors and indicators of these components, as well as documented responses to climate change where they exist. While the Index calculates anticipated increases or declines in populations of individual species, it also accommodates inherent uncertainties about how species respond within their ecological contexts.

Results fall into six categories:

  • Extremely Vulnerable
  • Highly Vulnerable
  • Moderately Vulnerable
  • Presumed Stable
  • Increase Likely
  • Insufficient Evidence

Resource managers, planners, and conservationists can use the Index to:

  • Conduct rapid assessments of the relative vulnerability of both rare and common species to climate change
  • Identify the most critical risk factors for groups of species
  • Highlight target species that warrant more in-depth study and research
  • Detect areas containing high concentrations of species threatened by climate change impacts
  • Begin to examine how impacts may cause the range of species populations to expand or retreat
  • Complement conservation status assessments to set conservation priorities across property and jurisdictional boundaries
  • Promote coordination, consistency, and efficiency of planning and managing for adaptation
  • Provide valuable input on species in key planning documents such as State Wildlife Action Plans

While the current version (2.1) of the Index is tailored for use in the 48 conterminous United States or Canada, use of the Index can be extended to other regions through modification of specific factors and exposure categories and accommodation of lower-resolution climate predictions.

About Version 2.1

Every day, we learn more about our climate, the changes it is undergoing, and the impacts of those changes on biodiversity. NatureServe actively incorporates that new knowledge into our databases, tools, and services. Released in April 2011, version 2.1 of the NatureServe Climate Change Vulnerability Index reflects these advances in our understanding of how climate change affects plants and animals.

  • Download the Guidelines for Using the NatureServe Climate Change Vulnerability Index v2.1. This document outlines the rationale for the Index, describes how it works, provides step-by-step instructions for applying the criteria used, and lists ways you can apply the results in strategies for adaptation planning.
  • Download the NatureServe Climate Change Vulnerability Index tool (version 2.1; 6MB). The Index itself is an Excel 2007 workbook that allows you to apply it to individual plant and animal species and store the results. You should consult the Guidelines for instructions on proper use of the Index, and please contact NatureServe for additional instruction before embarking on projects that make extensive use of the tool, to ensure proper interpretation and application.
  • Use the online version of the Index. Obtain a free user account on the Collaboratory for Adaptation to Climate Change, log in, and then use the tool. This version makes it easy for teams of collaborating scientists to work on the same database.

Andes Version

We have translated the Climate Change Vulnerability Index into Spanish and adapted for use in the tropical Andes. Download the Andes version (based on U.S. version 2.1; 6.7MB).

Canadian Version

Download the Canadian version of the Index, tailored for projected climates in Canada and using examples of species occurring in Canada.

Useful Climate Data

Download Climate Data in GIS format for use with the NatureServe Climate Change Vulnerability Index v2.1. All data from the Climate Wizard development team.

Online Training and Webinars

  • View an EBM Tools Network demonstration of the Index by Bruce Young (Jan. 19, 2012)
  • View a webinar overview of the Index by Bruce Young as part of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s “Safeguarding Wildlife from Climate Change” series (Sept. 21, 2011). Scroll down list of recorded seminars and choose “NatureServe’s Climate Change Vulnerability Index”.
  • Download an introductory training session which describes how to best use the Index (Apr. 6, 2010)
  • View a webinar overview of the Index describing the concepts used in its development and the data sources it draws upon given by Elizabeth Byers to the New Jersey Wildlife and Climate Change Alliance (Feb. 22, 2010)

Other Scientific Papers and Reports That Describe or Use the Index