Climate Research and Herbarium Specimens

By Nicole Tarnowsky

Sep 20 2019

Climate research requires lots of data. Data about the conditions on earth now, compared to data about conditions on earth in the past. Herbarium specimens are a valuable supply of that data. Botanists have been collecting plant specimens for over 300 years, preserving plants from the past for us to study now. Each specimen is a snap shot of that species, growing in that place, at that point in time. Across herbaria worldwide we have 387.5 million specimens¹, representing 300 years of the history of plants on earth. That's a lot of data.

As we digitize the information that herbarium specimens provide, this data has become available online to thousands of researchers, many of whom are studying climate change. These researchers have figured out clever ways to use herbarium specimens to track changes in the earth's environment. Some of the methods researchers use include noting when a plant flowers (phenology), measuring changes in leaves as carbon dioxide levels rise, mapping where species grow, and extracting DNA from specimens.

Learn more below about each of these research methods using herbarium specimens.

More about: Climate change


¹Index Herbariorum Anuual Report [Website]. Retrieved 19 September 2019 from