Thoreau and climate change

Henry David Thoreau was way ahead of his time, but, as the The New York Times observes, he wasn’t quite so prescient as to have predicted global warming. All the same, his voluminous (and apparently nearly illegible) journals, chock full of detailed observations of the flora of Walden, are now helping present-day researchers track the effects of climate change in New England.

Here’s what they’ve found:

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.

The researchers involved in the project note that their work wouldn’t have been possible at all if the notebooks, publications, and research materials of Thoreau and other Walden watchers hadn’t been carefully preserved:

The scientists say their research demonstrates the importance of simply watching the landscape and recording what occurs in it. And it demonstrates the importance of old records and natural history collections, Dr. Davis said. But in general, he said, there is little interest in devoting money, time and space to their preservation.

“It’s hard to defend the space on major campuses,” Dr. Davis said. “Eaton could not have prepared his ‘Flora’ unless Harvard University had maintained herbarium specimens. Hosmer’s book was here in Concord for 100 years before anyone used it.”

And that’s as good of an argument as any in support of continued (and expanded) science funding.

A side note here on the politics of science: on Slate, Christopher Hitchens has written a column blasting Sarah Palin, John McCain, and the GOP in general for what he identifies as their ignorant contempt of science. He’s particularly harsh on Palin, who recently publicly attacked funding for research involving fruit flies—never mind that fruit flies have long been useful in studying disease, and are significant agricultural pests besides. Scathingly, Hitchens points to the fact that at the University of North Carolina, there’s even a “Drosophila–based center for research into autism,” which is hardly the kind of scientific work that someone who’s allegedly committed to helping people with “disabilities and special needs” ought to oppose.

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1 Response to “Thoreau and climate change”


  1. 1 Andrew Rea October 30, 2008 at 9:44 AM

    WHAT?!?! People who know nothing of the scientific process criticizing what they don’t understand? Unpossible! Plus, it’s not as though studies on drosophila have aided in identifying the genetic components of vision, olfaction, audition, learning/memory, courtship, pain and longevity. Jesus, Ryan, I guess you just don’t get it: science (other than earth science, helpful in drilling for…all kinds of stuff) is a waste of taxpayer dollars. Or, if we had it YOUR way, taxpayer EUROS!


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