Science

Henry David Thoreau Comes To The Aid Of Climate Science

Henry David Thoreau, circa 1850 i i

Henry David Thoreau, circa 1850 Hulton Archive/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Henry David Thoreau, circa 1850

Henry David Thoreau, circa 1850

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On Earth Day 2013, I'd like to draw your notice to a fantastic essay by Andrea Wulf in The New York Times Book Review. Wulf explains how information recorded by Henry David Thoreau in his journals is now informing modern climate-change research.

In journal passages, some of which formed the basis for his famous treatise Walden, Thoreau carefully recorded the blooming dates for hundreds of plants in the area around Concord, Mass., from 1852 to 1861. Now, a team of scientists led by Richard Primack of Boston University is comparing those historical dates with the dates that these same plants flower today.

The average date of spring flowering is now 11 days earlier than it was in Thoreau's time. Wulf writes:

Primack and his associates have determined that plants in Concord are reacting to warming temperatures by flowering roughly two days earlier for each degree increase in temperature.

Thoreau is considered by many to be the world's first environmentalist. One hundred and fifty years later, as climate-change science becomes ever more vital, his impact on our thinking is still immense.


Barbara's new book, How Animals Grieve, has just been published. You can keep up with more of what she is thinking daily on Twitter: @bjkingape

Correction April 23, 2013

This post has been corrected. Barbara originally wrote that the blooming dates used by climate scientists were published by Thoreau in "Walden." The dates were, in fact, recorded by Thoreau in his journals, as the post now states.