Scientists Use H.D. Thoreau’s Records in Modern Day Investigation of Climate Change Effects

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Bad handwriting doesn’t always detract from the value of good material, at least for some people. Some examples of famous people with terrible handwriting are Napoleon, Meriwether Lewis, and Beethoven. Include famous writer and naturalist Henry David Thoreau in that. In 1845 William Ellery Channing complained to Thoreau in a letter: “…the hand-writing of your letter is so miserable, that I am not sure I have made it out.” Despite the writer’s notoriously bad handwriting, scientists and researchers are finding his records invaluable in the investigation of climate change over the centuries, particularly in the eastern US.

Biology professor Richard Primack and graduate student (at the time) Abe Miller-Rushing have tapped Thoreau’s written observations and another naturalist’s records to analyze how climate change has affected and changed certain plant species in eastern United States, in particular eastern Massachusetts. In 1851, Thoreau recorded his observation of the first spring plants and flowers blooming. Professor Primack and Miller-Rushing used these written records to compare with their modern observation and found that particular species’ flowering dates has moved up by ten days, on average. They also found that some flowering species which have retained their original flowering schedules, in spite of warmer spring seasons, are disappearing. In Thoreau’s lifetime, there were twenty one species of wild orchids in Concord. Now there are only six to be found.

According to science, there are two ways plants and animals could react to changing climates: they can physically shift their range or they can change their schedule of seasonal events. Shifting range includes traveling to a more favorable area, where there is a better chance of survival. Changing normal schedules of seasonal events includes altering the timing of blooming, migrations, etc. Both responses are well-documented and have been observed several times with different species.

For flowering plants which cannot adjust their inner timetable of seasonal events, it makes sense that they would succumb and fail to survive in changing climates, since they cannot move physically to a more favorable area. Others which can adjust and adapt their timetable will probably have a better of surviving and thriving.

Historical records like the writer’s notes provide material for comparison and analysis in modern times. Other sources of ecological data include naturalists’ journals, like Kathleen Anderson’s 30 years worth of records which was also used in the study. Anderson documented the activity of twenty two early spring species she saw on her farm in Middleborough, Massachusetts. Together with Thoreau’s records, Primack and Miller-Rushing were able to draw data for a modern comparison in the same area.

Club and field station’s records are also potential sources of historical ecological data, as well as museum specimens and photographs. Substantial amounts of data from these sources go untapped for years because of different reasons, yet may prove invaluable to modern research.

When data from these sources have been collected, they are used to investigate the present day impacts of climate change on the environment and ecosystems. Scientists then try to draw up an intelligent prediction of how ecosystems might respond to future changes in the climate. Practical plans to conserve biodiversity and ecosystems might be proposed based on these prediction and findings. Together with education of the public and political leaders, these plans aim to help the environment cope with the implications of a changing climate.

Perhaps Thoreau, with other naturalists of past centuries, intuitively knew that writing down their observations will prove valuable in the future, many years after their lifetime. Then again, they may not. But there’s really no telling how a small action might impact the future. If people like Thoreau did not take time to notice their surroundings, surely the world and its future generations would be that much poorer.


However, if you’re feeling up to starting a nature journal of your own, you might want to give some extra love to your penmanship. Just in case.


Photo Credit: Some rights reserved by ktylerconk on Flickr.

Estel M.
About Estel M. (339 Posts)

Estel Grace Masangkay is a creative writer who enjoys outdoor trips and nature activities. She is passionate about sustainability and environment conservation. Follow Me @Em23me.

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