Seely on Science: New climate science with help from Walden Pond and the Shack

2013-01-17T16:15:00Z Seely on Science: New climate science with help from Walden Pond and the ShackRON SEELY | Wisconsin State Journal | | 608-252-6131
January 17, 2013 4:15 pm  • 

I have always been fond of the stories of Henry David Thoreau's penchant for burying himself in the woods and for stalking off on long walks through the much wilder countryside of his time, armed with a bag for samples and a notebook, in which he faithfully recorded much of what he saw.

In his essay, "Walking," Thoreau wrote one of his more endearing lines: "Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps."

Similarly, I am taken by the thought of another famous naturalist, our own Aldo Leopold, rising before light in the morning at his converted chicken shed on the Wisconsin River to sit on his stoop with a cup of coffee and a notebook, recording the exact times when the different birds lent their songs to the dawn. His daughter, Nina Leopold Bradley, before her death in 2011, diligently carried on the important work of tracking everything from the comings and goings of birds to the flowering of trees and plants at the Shack.

Naturalists have also long been intrigued by such fastidious record-keeping. And new research released this week shows that, far from being dusty jottings of mostly historic interest, the decades-old phenological data give modern-day researchers a crucial tool for better understanding some of the impacts of climate change.

Working with scientists from Boston and Harvard Universities, Stan Temple, an emeritus UW-Madison professor of wildlife ecology, combined modern-day data with the records from Thoreau and the Leopolds to show with more certainty than ever that native plants in the Eastern and Midwestern United States are flowering as much as a month earlier due to warming temperatures.

By combining old and new records, Temple and the Eastern researchers were able to provide data over a long enough period to eliminate any remaining doubt that earlier flowering is not only real but also part of a decades-long trend that is likely to continue.

"We show quite definitively that the flowering time is being driven by spring temperatures," Temple said. "There's no doubt."

Based on Thoreau's near-obsessive record-keeping between 1852 and 1858, the researchers concluded that native plants including serviceberry and nodding trillium are now blooming 11 days earlier, on average, than during the time when Thoreau was tromping around the Concord, Mass., woods taking notes.

Here in Wisconsin, plants such as wild geranium and marsh marigold bloomed nearly a month earlier during the record warm spring of 2012 compared to 67 years ago when Leopold made his last journal notes.

Temple said the study, published Wednesday in the Public Library of Science One, or PLoS, has important implications for agriculture and for understanding what the future may hold.

Continued early flowering, for example, may pose a real problem when it comes to pollination. If plants flower and pollinators such as bees are not around, pollination doesn't happen. That this can be a real and practical concern became evident last spring when apple growers in the Kickapoo Valley watched their trees flower weeks earlier than usual. They rely on traveling beekeepers to bring bees that pollinate their trees and their great fear last spring was that the bees were going to be busy in warmer climes and not available when they needed them in the Wisconsin orchards.

Also, Temple said, the new research raises the unpleasant possibility that earlier flowering may eventually interfere with an important physiological phenomenon called "chilling." Flowering plants, it turns out, actually need a period of cold before they bloom. Without such chilling, the possibility that plants won't bloom at all becomes more likely.

"Plants become confused," Temple said.

During one of my chats with Temple about the research, I joked with him about the privilege of working alongside a legendary naturalist such as Thoreau. Temple, of course, for many years filled Leopold's teaching and research position in wildlife ecology at the UW-Madison, and is acutely aware of the importance in science of building, little by little, on all the painstaking work that accrues in a field over decades and even centuries.

Most of the time, for the field naturalists taking their meticulous notes, there is little knowledge of how the data may be used in the future or of what importance it might be. Still, they scribble.

How wonderful would it be to ring up Thoreau or Leopold and begin a conversation with, "Hey, you know all of that stuff you wrote down in your notebooks.........?"

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