Thoreau’s legacy updated

Henry David Thoreau drew his inspiration from the natural world around him. Today, scientists are using his records to reveal how that natural world has changed.

William David Thoreau: The man who's records were used in the study - Massachusets Archives

The author, philosopher, poet and naturalist, to name a few names; is best known for his personal exploration called Walden. However, Richard Primrack and Abraham Millar-Rushing have had their noses deep in one of his unpublished works. In a recent study, they used Thoreau’s records of flowering dates to demonstrate climate change.

Thoreau was a prudent naturalist. He took notes of the flowering dates of over 500 plants in Concord, Massachusetts over eight years. Primrack and Millar-Rushing recognized the potential of this information because of how closely temperature is linked to this phenomenon.

In recent years pheonology, or the study of cyclic and seasonal phenomena like flowering dates, has been recognized as a potential avenue for studying climate change. Flowering dates in particular are sensitive to temperature changes more than any other variable, say Primrack and Millar-Rushing.

There were many challenges in this study. Not all flowers could be used, some extinct and others not directly linked to temperature changes. The colloquial names, which Thoreau used, had to be matched with modern names of flowers. Not to mention, Thoreau’s poor penmanship. However, they were able to repeat the study and show that the temperature has raised 2.4C since the 1840s.

In an age of growing open source data and digitization of historical data, Primrack and Millar-Rushing’s discovery is exciting. With the complexity of climte change, it is important to have as much information as possible. The author’s of the study hope that Thoreau’s reputation will promote this type of research to expand our understanding of climate change through historical records.


Want to know more about how plant flowering dates are related to global warming. Look here.

Phenology Under Global Warming

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