Thoreau’s Writings Help Scientists Measure Climate Change

Posted on Sunday, November 9th, 2008 at 8:46 am by dpacheco

The following article originally appeared in the New York Times:

CONCORD, Mass. — Henry David Thoreau endorsed civil disobedience, opposed slavery and lived for two years in a hut in the woods here, an experience he described in “Walden.” Now he turns out to have another line in his résumé: climate researcher.

He did not realize it, of course. Thoreau died in 1862, when the industrial revolution was just beginning to pump climate-changing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. In 1851, when he started recording when and where plants flowered in Concord, he was making notes for a book on the seasons.

Now, though, researchers at Boston University and Harvard are using those notes to discern patterns of plant abundance and decline in Concord — and by extension, New England — and to link those patterns to changing climate.

Their conclusions are clear. On average, common species are flowering seven days earlier than they did in Thoreau’s day, Richard B. Primack, a conservation biologist at Boston University, and Abraham J. Miller-Rushing, then his graduate student, reported this year in the journal Ecology. Working with Charles C. Davis, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard and two of his graduate students, they determined that 27 percent of the species documented by Thoreau have vanished from Concord and 36 percent are present in such small numbers that they probably will not survive for long. Those findings appear in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“It’s targeting certain branches in the tree of life,” Dr. Davis said. “They happen to be our most charismatic species — orchids, mints, gentians, lilies, iris.”

Of the 21 species of orchids Thoreau observed in Concord, “we could only find 7,” Dr. Primack said.

From 1851 through 1858, Thoreau tracked the first flowerings of perhaps 500 species, Dr. Primack said. “He knew what he was doing, and he did it really systematically.”

Dr. Primack and Dr. Miller-Rushing did their own surveys in 2004, 2005 and 2006. They also consulted notes from Pennie Logemann, a landscape designer who tracked flowering times from 1963 to 1993 as an aid to planning Concord gardens. And they looked at contributions by members of area plant, insect and bird clubs and the work of additional participants in Concord’s long line of passionate amateur naturalists, some of whose records are preserved in the Free Public Library here.

One of them, Richard J. Eaton, is best known to botanists for his 1974 book, “A Flora of Concord.” Dr. Primack recalled that as a graduate student at Harvard, he had worked alongside Mr. Eaton in the university’s natural history collection — curators relegated the two of them to the same obscure table. “He was just this very elderly man,” Dr. Primack recalled. “Not a professor, an enthusiast. But he was a very, very good botanist. He used very good methods.”

Another contributor, Alfred Hosmer, is more obscure, but his contribution is enormous: detailed notes he made in Concord from 1888 through 1902.

“He was a storekeeper,” Dr. Primack told a small group of graduate students as he gathered them around a table in a special collections room in the Concord library one recent morning. He opened a gray cardboard box, sifted through photocopies of Thoreau’s notoriously hard-to-read notes and pulled out what looked like an ancient composition book. He turned to a page where an inventory of orchid species ended and one of irises began. The entries move across the page in tiny but precise script.

“You can imagine this as a storekeeper’s ledger,” Dr. Primack said. But Hosmer’s plant nomenclature was more accurate than Thoreau’s, he said. “Plus we can read his writing.”

According to Dr. Primack, Hosmer spent “15 years walking around Concord for several hours a day several times a week” making notes about plants. “He never wrote about why he was doing this,” Dr. Primack said, “but he had known Thoreau when he was a boy. Hosmer was one of the first people who said Thoreau was a genius and not just a nut.”

Dr. Primack said he had never heard of Hosmer until his interest in Thoreau led him to search for old journals, diaries and other records. “I started going to all these funny scientific societies we have,” he said. “I was getting up in the ‘new business’ and telling people what I was looking for. I got a lot of leads, but most were not very useful. Then Ray Angelo told me about Hosmer.”

Mr. Angelo, who stepped down recently as curator of vascular plants at the New England Botanical Club, is the author of a monograph, “Concord Area Trees and Shrubs.” The eminent biologist Ernst Mayr once called him “the most knowledgeable student of the Concord flora” and today, when Dr. Primack and the other researchers are looking for this species or that in Concord, Mr. Angelo tells them where to find it.

The most daunting challenge, though, was making sense of this kind of data.

Read the whole article here.

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