Can museum collections help answer key questions about climate change impacts on biodiversity?

Climate change is one of the five direct drivers that impact on biodiversity. I explored how museum collections can support research, management and policy of biodiversity in relation to climate change in a previous post. This post explores how biodiversity workers and museum workers think UK museum collections can help address key questions related to climate change. These questions come from a 100 Questions exercise by Bill Sutherland and colleagues. The set of 100 Questions was developed by a team of representatives of the world’s major conservation organisations, professional scientific societies, and universities, and the set of 100 questions was developed and refined iteratively.

I asked biodiversity workers and museum workers which of the 100 questions they thought UK museum collections could help address or answer. The 100 questions fall into 12 categories, with one category being climate change. This post only relates to that category, although climate change will impact on many of the other categories.

Sutherland and other wrote, in 2007:

“Many terrestrial, freshwater, and marine systems are already being affected by regional increases in temperatures (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2007). The most rapid changes have been seen in parts of the polar regions where 2–3◦C increases in temperature have occurred in the last 50 years. Concomitant changes in precipitation, ocean biogeochemistry, sea level, and extreme weather events are generating global concerns about the most effective strategies for conserving biological diversity as climate changes. Further concerns that societies may not be able to stabilize greenhouse gases at a level that will result in only a 2◦C increase in global temperatures above preindustrial levels (Anderson
& Bows 2008) are leading to a growing realization that governments should develop contingency plans for 4◦C increases in temperature. Biological diversity at all levels of organization is affected directly and indirectly by climate change and by adaptation and mitigation measures. The challenges to conservation ideology, policy, and practice are profound.”

There were 14 questions among the 100 questions that related to climate change. Of these, there were 8 questions that 50% or more of biodiversity workers, or UK museum workers, thought UK museum collections could support. There were 6 key questions that 50% or more of both groups thought UK museums could support. This shows a good agreement between what biodiversity workers think the potential of UK museum collections to be, and what museum workers think. As the great majority of respondents to the study were curators and collections managers specialising in natural history, this is good evidence of the value of natural history curatorial and collections-related staff for making collections usable and accessible to specialists. Conversely, it is also good evidence of the cost of losing natural history curatorial and collections staff.

The 6 questions both groups thought museum collections can support can be thought of as strategic directions for researchers and museum workers to put collections to work to address, and to ensure that collections can support them in an ongoing way. The other two questions are worth exploring, as they may have unrecognised potential.

Which research questions can UK museum collections support? % of biodiversity workers % of UK museum workers
What impact will the melting of polar ice and a reduction in permafrost have on the human use of high-latitude ecosystems, and how will these changes in human use affect biodiversity? 47% 58%
Which elements of biodiversity in which locations are most vulnerable to climate change, including extreme events? 82% 81%
How is the resilience of ecosystems to climate change affected by human activities and interventions? 64% 52%
How will climate change, together with other environmental stressors, alter the distribution and prevalence of diseases of wild species? 64% 73%
How will human responses to climate change (e.g., changes in agriculture, resource conflicts, and migration) affect biodiversity? 63% 69%
How might biodiversity policies and management practices be modified and implemented to accommodate climate change? 51% 52%
How, where, and to what extent can natural and seminatural ecosystems contribute to climate change adaptation and mitigation? 52% 52%
How does biodiversity shape social resilience to the effects of climate change? 51% 29%

These results are presented in a booklet I put together, as an output from a project funded by the British Ecological Society. You can download the booklet here:

Published by Henry McGhie

I have set up Curating Tomorrow as a new business. I know that lots of people, organisations and networks care about the communities they are based in, broader social issues and the natural environment. Curating Tomorrow takes museum-based skills of curating, and applies them to the wider world. It is about helping people and organisations move farther, faster, together to build a better world.

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