ABSTRACTAim  Climate change may cause loss of genetic diversity. Here we explore how a multidisciplinary approach can be used to infer effects of past climate change on species distribution and genetic diversity and also to predict loss of diversity due to future climate change. We use the arctic‐alpine plant Salix herbacea L. as a model.Location  Europe, Greenland and eastern North America.Methods  We analysed 399 samples from 41 populations for amplified fragment length polymorphism (AFLP) to identify current patterns of genetic structure and diversity and likely historical dispersal routes. Macrofossil records were compiled to infer past distribution, and species distribution models were used to predict the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) and future distribution of climatically suitable areas.Results  We found strong genetic differentiation between the populations from Europe/East Greenland and those from Canada/West Greenland, indicating a split probably predating the LGM. Much less differentiation was observed among the four genetic groups identified in Europe, and diversity was high in the Scandinavian as well as in southern alpine populations. Continuous distribution in Central Europe during the last glaciation was inferred based on the fossil records and distribution modelling. A 46–57% reduction in suitable areas was predicted in 2080 compared to present. However, mainly southern alpine populations may go extinct, causing a loss of about 5% of the genetic diversity in the species.Main conclusions  From a continuous range in Central Europe during the last glaciation, northward colonization probably occurred as a broad front maintaining diversity as the climate warmed. This explains why potential extinction of southern populations by 2080 will cause a comparatively low loss of the genetic diversity in S. herbacea. For other species with different glacial histories, however, the expected climate‐change induced regional extinction may cause a more severe loss of genetic diversity. We conclude that our multidisciplinary approach may be a useful tool for assessing impact of climate change on loss of genetic diversity.

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