New Climate Change Clue: Pressed Flowers?

Our understanding of climate change could get a boost from Victorian scientists. A recent study by the Journal of Ecology shows how flowers picked over 150 years ago could offer researchers a bigger picture of the effects of climate change.

Scientists use proxy data to look at the Earth’s climate in the past. This proxy data can include ice cores, tree rings, and ocean sediment. Each of these forms of data provides varying views at Earth’s temperature and other climatological phenomenon of the past.

The new study, by ecologists from the University of East Anglia, the University of Kent, the University of Sussex and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew goes a step beyond. Rather than using the flowers to extract temperature data, the researchers used temperature data to get a more detailed picture on when the flowers bloomed.

They studied samples of the early spider orchid taken between 1848 and 1958. Each sample was meticulously labeled and dated. They then compared this date with weather data from the Meteorological Office in England. This data was then compared with observations between 1975 and 2006.

Findings indicate that for degree Celsius increase in temperature, the orchid flowered 6 days earlier. The fact that the data from each set matches up so well gives researchers a huge untapped source of information stored in universities, museums, and private collections around the world. There are currently 2.5 billion plant and animal specimens that could be analyzed using similar techniques.

Comparing past flowering with current trends could fill in the gaps for phonological trends. Phenology is the study of natural climate-driven events such as the timing of trees coming into leaf or migration of animals each year. Up until this discovery, there was very little long-term phenological data out there for scientists to look at.

With this new discovery, a treasure trove of untapped information can be used to look more closely at the effects of climate change on the natural world. By using the flowering dates and temperature data from the past, researchers will be better able to forecast what the future will look like. This will hold benefits for more than gardeners wondering when their roses will bloom in 2050. Farmers looking to plant certain crops could also benefit from this new source of phenological data as could people that rely on gathering in the forest.

Of course there are drawbacks. Many specimens in museum collections come from developed countries. Having a wider understanding of the effects of climate change in these regions would be beneficial. However, knowing these effects in developing countries would have much wider benefits. Still, having the power to examine how individuals species are affected by climate change opens up a new world of possibilities to researchers looking to paint a picture of what our future will look like.

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