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Most scientists turn to conventional data sources when analysing climate change — meteorological stations and satellite data, for example. Scientists at Boston University, United States, have been taking a very different approach. They’ve been digging into centuries of data from diverse sources: museum collections, photographic archives and the diaries of field naturalists, among others.
Nineteenth-century naturalists such as Henry David Thoreau minutely recorded the ecological events they saw around them — from the flowering times of plants to the arrival of birds in spring. When combined with other sources of information, both old and new, a clear picture of environmental and climatic change emerges, biology professor Richard Primack explains in this audio interview.
Researchers in China, Japan and South Korea have also been delving into diverse historic archives to analyse how temperature shifts are altering ecosystems, Primack expains. Japan has records of its annual spring cherry blossom festival dating back over a thousand years, and by analysing these we can see that the festival is getting earlier every year, he says.

“These are some of the oldest records available anywhere in the world for the effects of climate change.”

The interview was recorded at the Natural History Museum’s Biotic Change conference on 27 November.