Current Nature: Walden Warming - Investigating Climate Change Impacts Through History And Science

Dr. Sarah Bois, Director of Research and Education, LLNF •

Beach plum
Flowering beach plum plants on Nantucket.

With the daffodils waning after a gorgeous Nantucket holiday weekend, we’re out and about looking for other signs of spring. Next to bloom are lilacs in our gardens and beach plums along the island’s sandy trails. I hear that the stripers are soon to follow, for those who keep an eye towards the water.

Keeping track of nature’s timing is a key part of what we do at the Linda Loring Nature Foundation (LLNF). We wrote in early April about phenology, the term used to describe the study of nature’s timing. At LLNF, we are recording what is happening now and into the future with the flora and fauna of Nantucket. But a key part of studying nature’s timing is looking back in time. Researchers can look to the past using historical datasets for any number of things – plants blooming, birds arriving, egg laying, fish running – to see how these recorded events have changed over time. It’s a marriage of history and science.

One of the leaders in this type of research, Dr. Richard Primack of Boston University, will be coming to Nantucket next week to discuss his work in a presentation hosted jointly by the Linda Loring Nature Foundation and the Nantucket Historical Association. You can register here for this free public event.

Dr. Primack is a renowned conservation biologist and plant ecologist. But it took finding the plant observations in the journals of Henry David Thoreau to bring him down the research path he’s been on for the past 22 years.

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Dr. Richard Primcak, Boston University.

For more than 170 years, the writings of famed American naturalist, essayist, poet, and philosopher Henry David Thoreau have served as inspiration for legions of preservationists and conservationists. But did you know that Thoreau was also a climate change scientist? Beginning in 1851, Thoreau meticulously chronicled the seasonal cycles of the fauna and flora in Concord, Mass., and at his Walden Pond retreat there. Although these observations were omitted from Thoreau’s published journals, the records survived in archives. Using these detailed notes and observations, Dr. Primack and his team have been converting these records from the 1850s into data that would become the baseline for contemporary ecological studies of the same area.

Dr. Primack and his team have been relying on Thoreau’s detailed observations – including dates, locations, and descriptions – from around Walden Pond, as well as observations by Alfred Hosmer a few decades later, to provide a baseline to measure the effects climate change is having on the environment there. Thoreau made note of when the last ice melted from the pond when flowers bloomed, the trees started showing leaves, and birds returned to the area. He also observed the abundance of different plant species found in the woods.

When Primack and his students returned to Walden more than 150 years later, they observed and recorded patterns much different than in Thoreau’s time. The thaw came sooner, the flowers bloomed earlier, and the trees began showing their leaves weeks ahead of time. But the observed changes didn’t always line up with each other or the behavior of birds and other wildlife – creating real stress on the ecosystem. Primack also noted that many wildflower species that Thoreau observed have declined in abundance or disappeared from the area. Primack’s talk on Nantucket next week will delve into this and more.

On-island, we hope to learn from the work of Dr. Primack about mining historical sources for these types of observations aka data. What can we learn about Nantucket’s future by looking at Nantucket’s history? What climate change indicators can we see on our own landscape?

In addition to Tuesday’s public talk, during Primack’s time on Nantucket, he’ll be touring the Linda Loring Nature Foundation phenology research program and visiting local students to discuss climate change impacts on the island.

Dr. Primack has been involved in educating the public about the effects of climate change through public talks and popular writing, including his 2015 book “Walden Warming: Climate Change Comes to Thoreau’s Woods,” which is also the title of next week’s lecture. His work has often been featured in the popular media, including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, National Public Radio, and National Geographic magazine.

Whether you’re interested in literature, history, science, or climate change, this talk has something for everyone. Only when we bring our seemingly disparate disciplines together can we have any real understanding of how our climate and our world are changing.

This FREE event will be held Tuesday, May 7th, at noon at the Nantucket Historical Association’s Greater Light property. The event is free but registration is strongly encouraged.

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