Robust evidence exists that certain extreme weather and climate events, especially daily temperature and precipitation extremes, have changed in regard to intensity and frequency over recent decades. These changes have been linked to human-induced climate change, while the degree to which climate change impacts an individual extreme climate event (ECE) is more difficult to quantify. Rapid progress in event attribution has recently been made through improved understanding of observed and simulated climate variability, methods for event attribution and advances in numerical modelling. Attribution for extreme temperature events is stronger compared with other event types, notably those related to the hydrological cycle. Recent advances in the understanding of ECEs, both in observations and their representation in state-of-the-art climate models, open new opportunities for assessing their effect on human and natural systems. Improved spatial resolution in global climate models and advances in statistical and dynamical downscaling now provide climatic information at appropriate spatial and temporal scales. Together with the continued development of Earth System Models that simulate biogeochemical cycles and interactions with the biosphere at increasing complexity, these make it possible to develop a mechanistic understanding of how ECEs affect biological processes, ecosystem functioning and adaptation capabilities. Limitations in the observational network, both for physical climate system parameters and even more so for long-term ecological monitoring, have hampered progress in understanding bio-physical interactions across a range of scales. New opportunities for assessing how ECEs modulate ecosystem structure and functioning arise from better scientific understanding of ECEs coupled with technological advances in observing systems and instrumentation.This article is part of the themed issue 'Behavioural, ecological and evolutionary responses to extreme climatic events'.